One of the most striking members of the group - which included a veteran of the civil rights movement, a tennis player who advocated gay rights and British scientist Stephen Hawking - was the last living High Plains Indian war chief, Joseph Medicine Crow.
A historian and champion of American Indian culture, and now in his 90s, he wore a feathered head-dress which made it a little difficult for Mr Obama to place the medal round his neck.
The president told the audience of several hundred how Joseph, whose grandfather had been a scout with General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn, had been a warrior, fighting in WWII with war paint under his uniform and a feather under his helmet.
He also had special words of praise for cosmologist Stephen, about whom he said: "from his wheelchair has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos."
Mr Obama continued: "In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and shown us the power of the human spirit here on earth."