The Big Question

What was the greatest gift of all time?

Graham Roumieu

R. Howard Bloch, chair, Yale University Humanities Program

A book sent in 827 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Michael the Stammerer to Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious arguably ended the Dark Ages. Pseudo-Dionysius’s doctrine of light inspired the first Gothic cathedral, influenced thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Dante, and made for a world still recognizably our own.

Virginia Clark, director of advancement and philanthropic giving, Smithsonian Institution

James Smithson, the Duke of Northumberland’s illegitimate son, had a taste for card games and liked to take chances. He took one on America, a country he never visited. Upon his death in 1829, Smithson gifted his entire estate, which included a library with just three books about America, to “found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Ken Stern, author, With Charity for All

The gift of New Jersey, given by the Duke of York in 1665 to two royalists, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton. If the territory hadn’t reverted to the Crown in 1702, their descendents would be exercising dominion over 8.9 million people, a half-trillion-dollar economy, Princeton University, the New York Giants, and Chris Christie.

Judith Rodin, president, Rockefeller Foundation

The greatest gift was actually quite small: tiny wheat seeds, resistant to drought and disease and adapted to grow in tropical climates. Developed by Norman Borlaug, who would become the father of the green revolution (and whose work was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation), the seeds were planted across fields in Latin America and South Asia. They ultimately fed more than 1 billion people and put poor countries on a path to self-reliance.

Lewis Hyde, author, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

Odysseus, on his way to Circe’s house in Homer’s The Odyssey, bumps into Hermes, who gives him a mysterious herb called moly to protect him from the witch’s magic. James Joyce called this “gift of Hermes” the “invisible influence (prayer, chance, agility, presence of mind … ) which saves in case of accident.” Hermetic gifts are those fertile coincidences that lead to creation, not chaos.

Amy Dickinson, advice columnist

God did send his only son to Earth to heal us. But then there’s the green Spyder bike my mom gave me when I was 8. I don’t put these gifts on the same level, but that bike was great. And my mother wheeled it into the living room in the middle of the night to surprise me on Christmas morning.

Susanna Elm, history professor, University of California at Berkeley

The Trojan Horse. By smuggling in the Greeks, it led to the destruction of Troy, so from the perspective of the city’s residents it was not such a great gift—at least not at that moment. But according to legend, Troy’s destruction made way for the foundation of Rome and its empire. The rest, as they say, is history.

Paul Collier, economist

Tim Berners-Lee’s gift to the world of the World Wide Web: he chose to make it a public good, rather than milk it for his own advantage, and the benefits have been enormous.

Darren Walker, president, Ford Foundation

In the depths of the Depression, Edsel Ford entrusted the people of Detroit with a 27-panel masterpiece: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry, or Man and Machine. The mural remains a monument to human endeavor and hard work.

Regis Philbin, talk-show host

I used to live on the East Side of New York, and every day I worried about getting over to the West Side for the 9 a.m. start of my morning show at the ABC studio. Many days, the car didn’t show up and there were no cabs to be seen, and I had to run through Central Park to get to the show. Then one day, I stepped outside and saw that a beautiful apartment building was being built just opposite the studio on Columbus Avenue. I was one of the first to buy a unit, and every day for the next 16 years I crossed the street to get to work. Unheard-of in New York, but a gift I’ll always remember.

Nicholas Burns, former diplomat and professor, Harvard Kennedy School

America's gift to the world: the idea of human freedom. Thomas Jefferson's "Empire of Liberty" provided the vision. Abraham Lincoln broke the back of the Confederacy and slavery to propel it forward. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. redeemed the promise for African Americans and, indeed, for all of us. Freedom for all people remains the North Star of our foreign policy—of what America means, in the best and truest sense, to the world beyond our shores.

Margo Howard, former advice columnist

Alexander Fleming's chance observation, in 1927, of the contamination and killing of a bacterial culture by a common mold led to the discovery of the first true antibiotic: penicillin. His Eureka! moment was a gift to the world.

​Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO, Acumen

Education, health care, clean water, electricity, toilets. These empower and create choice. Dignity, not dependency, is the ultimate gift.

Augusta McMahon, archaeologist
Around 3200 B.C., an anonymous official in the city of Uruk, now in southern Iraq, gave the world the gift of writing: an open-beta version, free, without patent and endlessly adaptable into variants ranging from Islamic calligraphy to text-speak.

Bethenny Frankel​, author, Skinny Girl Cocktails

Having a child makes everything seem inconsequential. Seeing your children look to you for everything, loving them, nurturing them, and watching them grow into their beautiful and unique selves is the most amazing gift.

Jim Gold, ​president and chief merchandising officer, Neiman Marcus

Neiman Marcus used to host a special Men’s Night before Christmas. Once, a gentleman complained that he couldn’t find ​the right gift for his wife​. When asked what that might be, he said only that he would recognize it if he saw it. Stanley Marcus asked for his wife's size, color preferences, and interests, and went to work. Marcus layered cashmere sweaters in various colors inside a giant goldfish bowl to give the appearance of a pousse-café, finishing with a white angora sweater as whipped cream. He topped it with a 10-carat ruby ring as the cherry. The gentleman exclaimed, "That's exactly what I was looking for!"