They’re the top: Yalies in the Guinness Book of World Records

No one would argue that Yale hasn’t produced its fair share of leaders. Five U.S. presidents and three vice presidents attended Yale; 17 supreme court justices; more than 30 Nobel laureates either attended or taught at the university, as have an almost equal number of Pulitzer Prize winners. Yalies also have been honored with Academy Awards, Tonys, Grammys, Emmys, the Man Booker Prize, MacArthur Fellowships, the Medal of Honor, Peabody Awards, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the National Medal of Science, and the Lasker Medical Research Award — just to name a few.

Yalies have also found their way on to another list known to many: the “Guinness Book of World Records”, which celebrated its 60th anniversary on Aug. 27, when the first copy was bound.

The honors vary from the odd to the remarkable. In 2003, Yale alum John Ahrens ’65 held the record for the largest collection of beer cans (30,000) and beer songs (2,000). According to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the oldest church in the world is a converted house originally in Qal-at es Salihiye (formerly known as Dura-Europos) in eastern Syria, dating from 232 A.D., which was dismantled in the 1930s by Yale archaeologists and rebuilt in the United States. (Today, paintings and sculpture from Dura-Europos — and more than 12,000 artifacts excavated by archaeologists — are preserved at the Yale University Art Gallery.)

“It’s Academic,” the world’s longest-running television quiz show, which features high-school contestants, has showcased the brain power of alumni Hillary Clinton ’73 J.D., Oscar-winning producer of “American Beauty” Bruce Cohen ’83, author of “MoonWalking with Einstein” Josh Foer ’04, and Yale President Peter Salovey ’83 M.S., ’84 M.Phil., ’86 Ph.D.

Up until 1981, physician and musician Merrill Wolf (B.A. 1945.) held the record for youngest person to graduate from a U.S. college (he was 14).

History of a book that itself holds a world record

The first edition of the “Guinness Book of World Records,” originally called the “Guinness Book of Records,” was published in 1955 by Guinness Superlatives, a sister institution to the famous brewing company that makes its dark stout at St. James Gate in Dublin.

According to the company, it was Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Guinness Park Royal Brewery in the 1950s, who first came up with the idea for the book. During a shooting party in County Wexford, Beaver and his compatriots debated which game bird flew the fastest. This gave Beaver the idea for compiling a book of facts that would be a definitive resource for settling such disputes. He partnered with Norris and Ross McWhirter, brothers who ran a fact-finding agency in Fleet Street and provided information to encyclopedias and newspapers.

When the book was released it was an instant hit and still holds the record for the best-selling copyrighted book of all time. The first edition was 198 pages long, containing approximately 4,000 records — though nothing about the fastest-flying bird — about as many as in today’s edition. It also included a handful of ink drawings and black-and-white photographs.

Guinness chair Rupert Guinness, earl of Iveagh, wrote the foreword to the first edition. While he noted the joy in debating facts, he said he hoped that the book would help resolve heated disputes in a more friendly way, “in producing this book we … turn heat into light.”

It didn’t take long for Guinness to begin publishing a series of spin-offs, including the “Guinness Book of Answers,” “Guinness Book of British Hit Singles,” and the “Guinness Book of Golfing.” Today the world-record version is available in almost 80 countries and has been translated into 38 languages.

The publication, which can easily be searched online, points out that records change everyday. For those curious about specific years, several editions can be found in the Yale Library

Other Yale record-holders?

The graphics in this article highlight Yalies who have been part of the Guinness Book of World Records in each decade. It is by no means an exhaustive list. If you know of other Yale alumni, faculty, or staff who have made the cut, share them with us at news@yale.edu, and with each other on social media, #YaleGuinness.

(Left) From 1990 to 1992, businessman and author Jim Rogers (B.A. 1964) traveled around the world on motorcycle, over 100,000 miles across six continents. (Center) In 2005, Yale’s Payne-Whitney Gymnasium held the record for the largest facility for indoor sport and recreation. (Right) In 2011 a team of Yale scientists led by Hui Cao and Wenjie Wan unveiled the first anti-laser, a device capable of absorbing and cancelling out a laser beam.
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Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,