Cambridge, Mass. — A New York actor. A Berkeley physicist. A country doctor in Claxton, Ga. A Harvard historian. Just two weeks ago, they shared little more than a singular devotion to their pursuits. Then came the MacArthur Foundation, bestowing on them honor and fortunes in cash - no obligations whatsoever.
''It hasn't quite sunk in yet,'' says Frank Sulloway, a Harvard University science historian and newly appointed MacArthur fellow. He says he still doesn't quite know why his efforts have earned such attention or even how the $184,000 prize will affect his work. ''But,'' he says, ''life probably isn't going to be the same.''
That's the idea. The MacArthur program, which has evoked praise and skepticism for the way it has dropped in on 140 other achievers, is aimed at spurring them on to greater accomplishments. Dr. Sulloway, who wrote an award-winning intellectual biography of Sigmund Freud and is working on another about Charles Darwin, is one the 25 most recent inductees into the growing ranks of MacArthur fellows - scientists, humanists, and others - whose achievements and future potential have somehow caught the unseen eye of Chicago's John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
No one can apply for a MacArthur fellowship - worth between $24,000 and $60, 000 a year for five years or more. The candidate selection is shrouded in secrecy. Many of the recipients of MacArthur largess are not new to the world of grants, prizes, and fellowships. But the mystery surrounding these particular awards means that the newly ordained fellows frequently greet their election with befuddlement.
''I really don't know how they'd heard of me,'' says Curtis Hames Sr., the Georgia physician who has quietly plied his trade for over 40 years in his hometown.
Dr. Hames's work, like that of most of the other fellows, is highly unusual: He has been observing medical trends in one biracial population over a lifetime - most such scientific inquiries take place over two or three years - and he hopes to write his findings in a series of books. ''They should be useful in solving health problems in, for instance, third-world countries,'' he says.
Also like most MacArthur fellows, however, Hames has only a vague notion of why the foundation chose to recognize his work. Unlike nearly every other philanthropy, the foundation provides its award winners only with the sketchiest details surrounding their selection.
Yet if the foundation's selection criteria are unclear, the program's goals may seem even foggier. ''What do we want to accomplish?'' asks Roderick MacArthur, chairman of the foundation and son of the late billionaire insurance magnate whose name the organization bears. ''We want to free creative people from everyday concerns.'' Unencumbered by such temporal considerations as where the next meal comes from, MacArthur fellows will be able to focus entirely on their chosen pursuits, so the thinking goes, and thus engage in the sort of creativity that produces major advances.
But unlike many traditional grants, which are doled out only after a rigorous application process and are often subject to frequent review, MacArthur awards can be used any way the recipient pleases. For some of the winners, such as Sulloway and Hames, that means a respite from the chores of teaching or other jobs so they can work on a cherished project. Others have used it to fill in a lapse in project funding from other sources. Many, not having figured out what to do with their money, are knitting themselves a future safety net by investing it.
''We haven't had anyone blow their money on a madcap weekend at the racetrack ,'' says foundation director Kenneth Hope. Yet, he hastens to add, ''if they did , we'd have nothing to say about it.''
But the tax-free stipends are not mere pats on the back for distinguished careers, either. ''The grants are supposed to be forward looking,'' Mr. MacArthur says.
The change was also intended to blunt criticism. The foundation,launched in 1981, promised to seek out mavericks of American arts and sciences who might be overlooked by traditional philanthropies. But the first draft of 21 fellows included many established names.
''A lot of the choices have been of the sorts that did very well, grantwise, anyway,'' says John Williams, an assistant director of the federal National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to such luminaries as poet Robert Penn Warren, the list was festooned with established scholars from research powerhouses such as Harvard and Stanford Universities. Some critics said certain ''glamor'' fields, such as archaeology, were overrepresented. ''It made you wonder just how extensive their contacts were outside of academia,'' Mr. Williams adds.
Others wondered about the way the award money was allocated. The amounts, determined solely by age, range from $24,000 a year for five years for recipients younger than their mid-20s, to $60,000 a year for five years for those in their 60s. A handful of winners have been named ''laureate fellows'' - accomplished individuals ''near retirement age or older,'' who receive $60,000 a year for the rest of their lives. Critics said such a distribution favored older researchers perhaps past their prime over younger talent whose best work might still lie ahead.
''The whole thing threatened to look more like a cross between the Irish Sweepstakes and the Nobel Prize than what the MacArthur people were promising,'' recalls the director of a major private philanthropy.
MacArthur dismisses such arguments. ''We're not to say when someone's talent dries up,'' he says. But following those initial criticisms, the charge went out to the foundation's anonymous ''talent scouts'' - 100 people deployed around the country who suggest nominees to the foundation's Prize Fellows Selection Committee - to find more young and unconventional prospects.
The first awards rarely went to nominees under age of 30. But in February the foundation awarded $128,000 to an 18-year-old specialist in Mayan hieroglyphics, who says he'll use the money to help pay for college.
The latest winners, announced Oct. 22, included a Broadway stage actor (the foundation's first performing artist), a civil rights activist for the disabled, a social worker in the rural South, and several academic awards.
Still, the effort to broaden the program's scope has its detractors, among them some MacArthur Foundation board members, who have reportedly said the foundation runs a greater risk of wasting money on such awards. Senior officials in the foundation say it is a factor in Roderick MacArthur's current lawsuit against eight of the foundation's board members. MacArthur accuses them of squandering the foundation's assets of more than $1 billion. He seeks removal of those members.
Meanwhile, the foundation is conducting an evaluation of the fellowship program, an effort slightly hindered by the scrupulous observation of the fellowship's ''no strings attached'' clause. Whether any ''genius'' will surface as a result of these awards is far from certain. But foundation officials note the dozens of research projects that have been initiated and sustained by the awards.
''I'm delighted with what I've seen so far,'' says MacArthur. ''But ... it's too early to say what sort of work is really coming out of it.''