On Jan. 28, the University of Connecticut gathered to pay tribute to Professor Cato T. Laurencin, MD, Ph.D. at a special reception honoring him upon his winning the 106th annual prestigious Spingarn Medal. It is the highest honor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Impressively, like Laurencin, the Spingarn Medal has been bestowed upon such American greats as Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, Charles Drew, and others over the award’s 106-year history.
Named after the late J.E. Spingarn–then NAACP Chairman of the Board of Directors– this gold medal, awarded annually since 1915, honors “the man or woman of African descent and American citizenship who shall have made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field.” The award is intended both to draw the attention of the general public to African American achievement and to inspire young African Americans.
“This list of those who have won the Spingarn medal is incredible. I am honored to be in such awesome company,” said Laurencin, who paid special homage to his parents, thanking his father, a union carpenter, and his mother, a doctor and trailblazer in medicine, science, and the community for teaching him Black excellence and Black resilience. He also profusely thanked his wife and children for their ongoing support.
Laurencin is the first engineer to receive the Spingarn medal honor, the fourth physician, and the fifth scientist. He serves as the University Professor and Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Endowed Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UConn.
“It’s important to celebrate Dr. Laurencin and this important award as we move into Black History month,” said Carl Lejuez, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “We have a chance to celebrate him as he receives an award so meaningful that it can stand as a crown jewel in a trophy cabinet that is bursting at the seams. Clearly, UConn is lucky to have Dr. Laurencin, and it is truly our pleasure to celebrate him.”
Lejuez added: “This recognition, the highest honor from the NAACP, is so well deserved for one of UConn’s most accomplished and renowned faculty members and leaders. He is also a wonderful mentor to so many. Each of us are connected by our admiration and respect for Dr. Laurencin and his significant body of work, and the way he has touched in so many positive ways so many individuals.”
Scot Esdaile, member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and president of the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP, also spoke at the event. “This award is big. This is well deserved. The whole Connecticut NAACP loves you and we thank you for all the great work. It’s really amazing that he was chosen by this distinguished group. This is the highest award you can get from the NAACP.”
“You mean a lot to us…our great Cato Laurencin,” said Incoming UConn Interim President Dr. Radenka Maric. “On behalf of the entire University of Connecticut, I want to extend my congratulations. This is a great day for not only our University but our entire State.”
Maric concluded, “I can think of no one more inspiring in the field of science, technology, and medicine than Dr. Cato Laurencin. I call him a global scientist because his work is in every corner of this planet and his students are citizens of the world and he is a citizen of the world.”
Incoming Interim CEO and EVP of Health Affairs for UConn Health and dean of UConn School of Medicine, Dr. Bruce T. Liang adds: “Congratulations Dr. Laurencin for your Spingarn Medal award from the NAACP. This is well-deserved for you and your pioneering work on regenerative engineering.”
While U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal could not be in attendance, Interim President Maric shared on his behalf his best wishes with Laurencin for this major honor and presented him with a U.S Senate Certificate of Special Recognition for being honored with the NAACP Spingarn Medal.
“Thank you,” Laurencin said, accepting the certificate, honor, and to all the guests in attendance on Jan. 28. “I am so honored. I look forward to the new things that we do here at the University of Connecticut.”
Laurencin’s seminal and singular accomplishments in tissue regeneration, biomaterials science, and nanotechnology, and regenerative engineering, a field he founded, have made him the foremost engineer-physician-scientist in the world. His breakthrough achievements have resulted in transformative advances in improving human life. His fundamental contributions to materials science and engineering include the introduction of nanotechnology into the biomaterials field for regeneration.
Laurencin is the first surgeon in history to be elected to all four national academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Inventors. He is the first person in history to receive the oldest/highest award of the National Academy of Medicine (the Walsh McDermott Medal) and the oldest/highest award of the National Academy of Engineering (the Simon Ramo Founder’s Award). In science, he received the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize given “for signal contributions to the advancement of science in the United States.” In technology and inventorship, Laurencin is a laureate of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, America’s highest honor for technological achievement, awarded by President Barack Obama at the White House.
In July, when the NAACP announced Laurencin as the 2021 winner, Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the organization, said: “Dr. Laurencin’s contribution to furthering humanity’s collective achievement in the field of science and engineering is extraordinary. As a pioneer of the new field, regenerative engineering, he is shaping the landscape of cell-based therapy, gene therapy, and immunomodulation. Named as one of the 100 Engineers of the Modern Era by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, he has received countless awards for his transformative work. The NAACP is proud to present Dr. Laurencin with our highest recognition and join the chorus of those that realize what his work means globally.”
Laurencin received his BSE in chemical engineering from Princeton University, his MD, magna cum laude from the Harvard Medical School, and his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering/biotechnology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the CEO of The Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering.
As the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP remains a fixture in fighting for civil rights and social justice for all. Through its annual awards, it highlights the achievements of individuals and our branches, trailblazers who are actively on the front lines driving progress in business, law, education, and other sectors. In honoring their work and commitment, the NAACP aims to further the legacy of its organization, while championing future generations of civil rights leaders.