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24 receive ‘genius grants’ for finding solutions

BC historian is cited for work on ancient cultures

CHICAGO — The old man couldn’t control his diabetes, no matter how closely he followed his doctor’s instructions. A nurse visited him to find out why the insulin wasn’t working, only to watch the nearly blind man inadvertently inject himself with a syringe filled with nothing but air.

It sounds simple to track a patient outside of office visits. But the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation found the idea genius.

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Jeffrey Brenner, a doctor and founder of the organization that dispatches medical professionals to the doors of the desperately poor residents of Camden, N.J., was named Tuesday as one of 24 to receive a $625,000 ‘‘genius grant’’ from the foundation.

‘‘This is an acknowledgment that we are headed in the right direction,’’ Brenner said.

The 44-year-old created the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers as a means to find and track the poorest patients with the most complex medical issues. Those patients are visited wherever they are — at home, in shelters — and are escorted to doctor’s appointments.

‘‘We cut, scan, zap and hospitalize [patients],’’ said Brenner, whose group is now working with 10 communities to develop similar systems. ‘‘But we forget we need to take care of them.’’

The eclectic group of grant recipients includes scientists, artists, historians, writers, a lawyer, a statistician, and a photographer. They can spend the money however they like. They are honored for seeing things others haven’t, asking questions others haven’t asked, and finding new solutions to old problems.

The awards, given annually since 1981, are doled out over a five-year period. This year’s class brings the number of recipients to nearly 900, and also will be given the largest amount ever — $125,000 more than last year. Shrouded in secrecy, the selection process involves anonymous nominators and selectors who make final recommendations to the foundation’s board of directors.

Robin Fleming’s work has been to show the humanity of nations passed over in history books. A medieval historian at Boston College, she has focused on Great Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire, starting in the fifth century, by analyzing things like coins, pots, and even tooth enamel found in settlements and cemeteries to create a picture of their lives.

What she discovered was the people of the time were so determined to carry on the ways of those who came before, they went to cemeteries to dig up artifacts that would help them do that — including containers that held cremated remains.

‘‘They knock the ash out, give them a wash and put them on the table,’’ Fleming, 57, said.

Attorney Margaret Stock focuses on military personnel and their families who she says are victimized by the nation’s immigration laws.

Stock created the American Immigration Lawyers Association MAP program, which puts volunteer lawyers across the nation with military families that need help.

Fiction writer Karen Russell worked at a veterinarian clinic part-time while writing the acclaimed novel ‘‘Swamplandia.’’ Her grant money buys her time.

‘‘Just the idea of having a stretch of time where you can commit your time wholeheartedly to a project, nobody gets that,’’ the New York City resident said.

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