Ursula von Rydingsvard in front of Ona, her 19-foot-high cast-bronze sculpture at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (Photo: Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)
On a crisp October Monday in the year 2000, a persistent ringing shattered the predawn silence at the New York home that the scientist Paul Greengard shares with his wife, the sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. “Paul muttered something like, ‘What jerk is calling at five in the morning?’” recalls von Rydingsvard with a gleam in her eye. Their daughter, staying in an adjoining bedroom, picked up the phone to drowsily greet a stranger with a Swedish accent—calling from the Nobel Prize Committee. Greengard was soon wide awake.
Later that day, the couple’s young grandson clutched a bouquet of yellow tulips and led a family procession through the gates of the Rockefeller University, where Greengard has been Vincent Astor Professor and headed the laboratory of molecular and cellular neuroscience since 1983, and onto a hastily planned university-wide celebration. It was during this happy walk to Caspari Hall that Greengard told von Rydingsvard of his idea to use his Nobel winnings—approximately $400,000—to create another prize, one that would recognize the accomplishments of women in science and be named in honor of his mother, Pearl Meister Greengard.
“Paul’s mother was a secretary—a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher, that’s all of the things a woman could be in the 1920s—and it was in honor of her that he wanted to give a prize to a woman or a group of women who are the most brilliant in doing medical research in the world,” explains von Rydingsvard. “And of course, how could I possibly not agree? I said, ‘This is great!’”
This evening the couple will be back in Caspari Hall for the tenth Pearl Meister Greengard Prize ceremony. Von Rydingsvard will present the award, which includes a $100,000 honorarium, to Huda Zoghbi, who, along with her collaborators, has unraveled the genetic underpinnings of neurological disorders such as Rett syndrome. “The women who receive the prize are brilliant. They’re creative,” says von Rydingsvard, who is herself in the midst of preparing for a major 2014 exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. “And it’s so moving to hear them speak about the process of their scientific work—how it built on itself and when they realized that they had something of significance.”