The history of American philanthropy is a unique story of passion, generosity and vision, and one whose impact is almost impossible to overestimate. 

America’s first recorded fundraising effort was launched in 1643 to benefit what was called The New College, established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Three years later, it was renamed after a young minister who donated his library and half his estate to the institution. His name was John Harvard. The effort was deemed “a great success” after the collection of 500 British pounds.

Philanthropic fundraising went on to dramatically change the course of higher education in America, producing the College of William & Mary in 1693, the precursor of St. John’s College in 1696, and Yale in 1701, to name but a few from America's earliest days.

Relying on private individuals to educate the next generation of leaders, rather than leaving that responsibility to the crown or the church, was an entirely new concept. Such visionary innovation was enhanced with the advent of "endowed professorships," the first of which occurred in America in 1721. Far from commonplace, an endowed professorship is rare elsewhere in the world and acknowledged as a key driver in propelling our nation’s universities to international preeminence.

Philanthropy has dramatically changed the course of many areas of science – not the least of which is medical research. Medical breakthroughs like the polio vaccine and hookworm eradication were the products of philanthropy.

Countless individuals have stepped forward to make a difference.

Katherine McCormick, a beneficiary of the International Harvester fortune and an early women’s rights activist, funded a private laboratory – eventually investing the equivalent of $20 million – in a quest to develop a daily birth-control pill. McCormick was the sole funder of this work.

Upon his death in 1975, Uncas Whitaker literally willed the new field of biomedical engineering into legitimacy with a $700 million gift, one that came at a time when many universities and the government medical-funding agencies opposed blending engineering and medical disciplines. The Whitaker effort created curricula for the new field and funded inaugural research projects. Thanks to his vision, professional societies were spawned and the careers of 1,500 biomedical engineers were launched, who then went on to found more than 100 companies. As a result, revolutionary products like lab-grown skin and organs, laser surgery, advanced prosthetics, large-scale joint replacement, cochlear implants and hundreds of other modern miracles are now commonplace.

For more than 75 years, Southwestern Medical Foundation has been privileged to witness the generosity and the passion of our donors, and has been awed at the power of philanthropy. It was philanthropy that helped us establish what would become UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Over the course of the Foundation’s history, we have received gifts ranging from $100 to $100 million. And while the magnitude of those gifts relates to each donor’s financial standing and good fortune, they were inspired and nurtured in common ground: A desire to relieve the suffering of others.

Such is the recent example – and just one among thousands – of Nancy Wiener Marcus.

“I had been concerned about the rise of pancreatic cancer for years,” Marcus said.

Ms. Marcus had previously established the Nancy Wiener Marcus Fellowship in Gastroenterology in Honor of Dr. Mack Mitchell at UT Southwestern. But when she learned of the Medical School’s efforts to provide more effective early diagnosis and evaluation of pancreatic cysts, she wanted to know more.

Drs. Nisa Kubiliun and Rebecca Minter, Co-Director’s of the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program at UT Southwestern, explained their mission: to create specialized care for the diagnosis, management and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

It was a goal Marcus easily embraced.

As a result of their conversation, Ms. Marcus gave $100,000 to the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program. 

Nancy Wiener Marcus

“[It] allows us to establish a robust research program focused on early detection and identification of promising biomarkers,” said Dr. Minter. “Patients with precancerous pancreatic cysts and those with a hereditary condition that predisposes them to the development of pancreatic cancer will directly benefit as a result.”  

“Nancy’s lovely gift will provide families potentially affected by pancreatic cancer optimism and hope,” said Kathleen Gibson, President and CEO of Southwestern Medical Foundation. “Because this gift comes at a formative time, the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program can advance its critical work to better safeguard patients’ health and prevent serious disease.”

“Ms. Marcus has shown her abiding commitment to helping those affected by some of the most devastating illnesses,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern.

After her donation was complete, Ms. Marcus offered a final thought.

“I hope my gift will inspire others to contribute funding to fight pancreatic cancer or support another area important to them so we can all make an impact in saving lives,” she said.

At the Foundation, we believe it is a sentiment best understood as one so fundamentally important to the fabric of what it means to be an American, that we wanted to honor it in this year-end message of hope. 

Because in the end, it is philanthropic passion and the generous heart that will continue to make America all that it strives to become.


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The UT Southwestern pancreatic cancer prevention team provides a level of expertise and experience in pancreatic cancer prevention that is unmatched in Texas and the surrounding region. To learn more about the team and the program, please go here

Much of the information for this article came from The Almanac of American Philanthropy by Karl Zinsmeister and The Philanthropy Roundtable – an incredible resource on the history of philanthropy in America. If you would like a copy, we’ll be happy to send you one. Just call 214-351-6143 or email info@swmedical.org and let us know.