Fact Check

Kurt Vonnegut MIT Commencement Address

Did Kurt Vonnegut give the commencement address at MIT?

Published March 31, 1999


Claim:   In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut gave an unusual commencement address at MIT.

Status:   False.

Legend:   According to a text circulating all over the Internet, Kurt Vonnegut was the 1997 commencement speaker at MIT. His speech supposedly began as follows:

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Origins:   Kurt Vonnegut was not the 1997 commencement speaker at MIT. That honor went to Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. The speech attributed to Vonnegut was actually a 1 June 1997 column by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich. As with many other good bits of writing and speech, the attachment of a famous name to the works brings them to the public's attention in a way they could otherwise not have


(Echoes within echoes: Georgia State University graduates may remember Ted Turner's speech at their graduation in 1994. Turner, facing a skin cancer operation, told them: "The one piece of advice I can give you is put on sunscreen and wear a hat.")

In 1998, the text of the Mary Schmich piece was turned into a "spoken voice" recording featuring the voice of Australian actor Lee Perry. Titled "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen," the piece immediately became a cult hit in Australia, and by early 1999 the "song" was taking America by storm.

2002 saw the "Vonnegut/MIT commencement speech" tale circulated anew, that time identified as the speech given to the graduating class of 2002.

Last updated:   26 September 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Gundersen, Edna.   "Listeners Across Nation Slather on Sunscreen Wisdom."

    USA Today.   24 March 1999   (p. 3D).

    Hiestand, Michael.   "Masters Quips Put McCord Off Course."

    USA Today.   30 August 1994   (p. 3).

    Kramer, Art.   "Internet Imitates Art: Vonnegut 'talk' to Graduates Came From Columnist."

    The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.   7 August 1997   (p. A1).

    Rawsthorn, Alice.   "Unlikely Chart Hit for Film Maker."

    [London] Financial Times.   29 March 1999   (Americas; p. 4).

    People.   "Mary Schmich's Mock Graduation Speech is Misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut."

    25 August 1997   (p. 147).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

Article Tags