Mizzou’s Nobel winner gives away his $250,000 prize to students

University of Missouri’s newly minted Nobel Prize winner has decided what to do with his nearly $250,000 in prize money: He’s giving it away.

George P. Smith, a biology professor emeritus known on campus as a kind and modest genius, said Tuesday he is donating it all to launch the Missouri Nobel Scholarship Fund for students in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This might surprise some people, but my first degree was actually a bachelor of arts, not a bachelor of science,” Smith said at a community event in Columbia with his wife, Margie. “My liberal arts education was the springboard for a lifetime of learning and cultural engagement. Margie and I hope that supporting the liberal arts as a whole will enrich the lives of future Mizzou students, whatever careers they choose.”

The announcement marked the start of Wednesday’s annual Mizzou Giving Day, designed to encourage support for the university.

MU and the University of Missouri System contributed an additional $300,000 toward the new fund, raising the gift to more than half a million dollars.

And MU Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright announced that the university is starting a new tradition to set aside $100,000 for scholarships every time a faculty member wins a Nobel Prize. Smith is the first MU faculty member to win the Nobel.

Cartwright added that any contributions others might make to the fund will be matched dollar for dollar by the university through its Promise & Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“Time and time again we have been overwhelmed by George’s incredibly humble attitude, and today we are amazed even further by his spirit of generosity,” Cartwright said in a statement. “Gifts such as these make it possible for more students to attend our university and have the experience of being taught by other world-class faculty.”

University of Missouri chemistry professor George P. Smith (left) receives his Nobel Prize from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden during the award ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, 2018. Pontus Lundahl AP

At Tuesday’s community event, Smith talked about his Nobel Prize week with his wife in Stockholm, Sweden, in December, and he discussed phage display, the biological process that won him the prize in chemistry.

Smith, 77, had shared the Nobel with two other researchers — Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology, who was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize, and Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England, who divided the other half with Smith. The winners were selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

George Smith rides his bike to work every day at the University of Missouri. Marjorie Sable AP

After Smith won what is arguably the most prestigious award in the world, the university honored him with his own space on a campus bike rack. It was just what Smith wanted. He lives less than a mile away and rides his bike to work every day.

Smith earned a doctorate in bacteriology and immunology from Harvard University in 1971, and after a postdoctoral fellowship with the late Nobel winner Oliver Smithies at the University of Wisconsin joined the faculty at MU in 1975. He has since retired but maintains a lab at the university and teaches an honors class about world issues.

Smith studied bacteriophage, the virus that attacks bacteria, and in 1985 invented a method called phage display, which allows scientists to easily screen and harvest certain molecules. Today his method is used in thousands of laboratories worldwide as the basis for a wide range of experiments.

“George Smith has been a star of the College of Arts and Science for more than 40 years,” said Pat Okker, the college’s dean. “He is a fabulous researcher, an exceptional teacher and an awesome human being. This gift continues to prove how completely committed George and Margie are to student success.”

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