Columbia University Medical Center

Cancer Center Director Receives Légion d’Honneur

Stephen Emerson, director of Columbia's Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, received the Legion d'Honneur in a ceremony in January 2013.

Stephen Emerson (right) with François Delattre, the French ambassador to the United States. Photo: Laura Pertuy.

Columbia professors Stephen G. Emerson, MD, PhD, and Joseph E. Stiglitz, PhD, were awarded the Légion d’Honneur on Jan. 18, 2013, at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City.

The Légion d’Honneur was created by Napoleon in 1802 and is France’s highest distinction. It is bestowed in recognition of outstanding achievement in the military and in the public and private sectors. French Ambassador François Delattre presented the honor to each recipient.

“Both of our recipients are great leaders,” said Delattre, “with an extraordinary moral compass pointing toward progress and knowledge: two values that our countries share, two values that are at the very core of the French-Atlantic friendship and partnership.”

Emerson, president of Haverford College from 2007 to 2011, received the honor for returning to the Institut de France an original letter by René Descartes, written in 1641, that had been donated to the college’s library in the early 1900s.

More: Descartes Letter Found, Therefore It Is, New York Times

When Emerson learned that the letter had, in fact, been stolen from the Institut de France in the mid-19th century, he immediately contacted the Institut. The letter was an important discovery because it demonstrates how much Descartes was influenced by the critical comments he received – late in the writing process – on his Méditations Metaphysiques. The book, known in English as Meditations on First Philosophy, was published in 1647 and became one of Descartes’ most important works.

An excerpt from a letter written by René Descartes in 1641.

An excerpt from a letter written by René Descartes in 1641. Photo: Haverford College.

“This letter, among thousands of other treasured documents, had been stolen by an Italian mathematician.” said Delattre. “This event was called ‘The Great Robbery.’ It was a tragic loss for French intellectual life. Cher Professeur, as soon as you were informed of the letter’s existence, you declared that there was only one responsible course of action: to return it to France.”

Returning the letter, Delattre said, “is only one of many examples of Dr. Emerson’s sense of values and leadership” in medicine, medical research and education. Emerson joined Columbia in 2012 as director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and Clyde Wu Professor of Immunology and Medicine.

More: Stolen Descartes Letter Returned, Agence France-Presse video

The choice to return the letter to France, Emerson said after receiving the award, “was obvious, and also demonstrative, of what one can do – and should do – and what the world can be if we all do what is straightforward. If we look around us today, we see countless examples of people who are not able to retain their individual cultures and yet also co-exist with their neighbors. But Descartes solved that, and we played a small role in carrying out his legacy.

“If one does what’s right,” Emerson concluded, “the world can become a better place. If we all do this in our jobs and in our lives, the world can heal.”

Stiglitz received the honor for his commitment to “a more equitable world,” Delattre said. “You brought to economics a new vision and a new way of thinking. You are not an ivory tower economist, but one who is constantly involved in the world, noticing its imperfections.”

More: Stephen Emerson and Joseph Stiglitz Awarded the Légion d’Honneur, Embassy of France

Joseph E. Stiglitz is University Professor, teaching in the Department of Economics, the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Graduate School of Business. He co-chairs the university’s Committee on Global Thought. He received the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2001.

– Mary Schiller

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