Celebrating 2020 Templeton Prize Laureate Francis Collins
By Alyssa Settefrati
In 1973, the first Templeton Prize was given to Mother Teresa. In 2023, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this award. Over the next 52 weeks, we will highlight each of our laureates and reflect on their impact on the world. From humanitarians and saints to philosophers, theoretical physicists, and one king, the Templeton Prize has honored extraordinary people. Together, they have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it, making this (we humbly think) the world’s most interesting prize.
Dr. Francis Collins is a renowned geneticist and physician who previously served as the Director of the National Institutes of Health and led the Human Genome Project to its successful completion in 2003. His groundbreaking contributions to science, particularly genomics research, and his dedication to bridging science and faith have established him as a prominent figure in the scientific community.
Born on April 14, 1950 in Staunton, Virginia, Collins grew up on a farm and was homeschooled until sixth grade. His family was not particularly religious, but he was taught to be respectful of all faiths. He considered himself an atheist in his youth.
Collins earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of Virginia and pursued a Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Chemistry at Yale University. Following his Ph.D., he transitioned to medicine, receiving his M.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
One of Collins’ most significant achievements came through his leadership in the Human Genome Project (HGP). As the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993 to 2008, Collins played a pivotal role in the successful completion of the HGP in 2003. The HGP mapped and sequenced the entire human genome, a monumental scientific endeavor with profound implications for medicine and biology. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Collins as the director of the NIH, recognizing his exceptional leadership and scientific expertise.
Throughout his career, he has advocated for the integration of faith and reason, which began during his time as a medical student when he witnessed religion comfort patients in physical and existential pain. The turning point occurred when an elderly woman with an incurable heart condition asked him what he believed, and he couldn’t provide an answer. He eventually became a committed Christian and wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, where he explores the compatibility of scientific discovery and religious faith. Collins advocates for harmony between science and religion, emphasizing that each domain can enrich our understanding of the world. He also founded BioLogos, an organization that supports the view that God created all things through the instrument of evolution.
In 2020, Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize for his endeavors to encourage religious communities to embrace the latest discoveries of genetics and the biomedical sciences as insights to enrich and enlarge their faith. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic — in which Collins helped lead the US federal pandemic response — the Templeton Prize ceremony was held virtually from Washington, DC.
“We need to address the growing spiritual void that leaves many of us adrift, unmoored, feeling precarious. Angus Deaton and Anne Case write about how this has contributed to the terrible increase in deaths from drug overdose and other things – the ‘deaths of despair.’ But there are many other consequences of our spiritual impoverishment short of death. We need to be re-anchored in those ancient spiritual truths that provide a rock upon which we can build our future.”Francis Collins