The Order of Merit - the so-called "most exclusive club in the
world". But what is it and what makes it so special?

Sir James Black invented beta-blocker drugs, won a Nobel Prize and is widely hailed as one of the great Scottish scientists of the 20th Century. But tucked away in his biography is a lesser-known accolade. In 2000, Sir James was given "the UK's highest honour" - the Order of Merit (OM).

The medal is compared to France's Legion d'honneur and America's Congressional Gold Medal, but with one big difference. Most people in France and the US have heard of their country's honour, while over here most people have no idea what the Order of Merit is.

This has a lot to do with the arithmetic, says Stanley Martin, a former diplomat who has written a book on the honour

At any point in time, there can only be a total of 24 members of the OM. This has been the case since King Edward VII established it in 1902 to reward those whose accomplishments in the arts, sciences and learning may go unsung.

Also, the honour does not come with a title, so there's no immediately obvious way of knowing someone has been bestowed with it.

Members are given a red and blue enamel badge, which reads "For Merit". When a member dies the badge is returned to the Queen, who receives the next-of-kin personally. She also has a portrait painted of each member, which becomes part of the royal collection, and hosts a gathering for the entire Order every five years.

It's thought the number of members is so small to keep it exclusive.

"That was the number deemed to be exclusive enough," says a Buckingham Palace spokesperson.

This BBC news story highlights a way in which the role of a Scientist in society was given a very special place, boosting his rankings above knights and dames, in UK honours lists

Mr Martin says the ratio of knights and dames to OMs is 150 to one.

"Knights and dames are ten-a-penny," he says. "[The Order of Merit] is extremely
exclusive. They are the names of the 20th Century."

The question raised of course, is, who will make up the list placing left vacant by the loss of this great scientist, and which area of society will the new member be from?

Full story here, Author: Elizabeth Diffin, BBC News Magazine