By Marilyn Abegg-Glass
Women’s Fund of Smith County
The raising of extraordinarily large sums of money, given voluntarily and freely by millions of our fellow Americans is a unique American tradition… Philanthropy… charity… giving voluntarily and freely … call it what you like, but it is truly a jewel of American tradition.
President John F. Kennedy
A foot print is an image left behind by someone walking ahead of us. The unique American tradition of “giving voluntarily and freely” that President Kennedy described is full of the foot prints of philanthropy left by those whose gifts created this “jewel of American tradition”, unique in all the world.
The foot prints of philanthropy across our country have served as a beacon of prosperity, innovation, generosity, and opportunity since the very earliest days of our country. Throughout our country’s history, philanthropists have often invested in people, property, and ideas long before businesses or the government came into the picture.
I reflect today on a few of those foot prints of philanthropy and the impact they have made on our country and in our world.
One enormous and very early footprint was left by an elderly, childless widow in 1643, while our land was still an English colony. Lady Anne Mowlson gave one hundred English pounds to Harvard University to create the first scholarship endowment at the fledgling university. Indeed, Lady Mowlson’s gift created the first academic scholarship in the New World, a tradition that soon began to spread to other colleges and universities!
Can you imagine what our country would be like today if we didn’t have the magnificent scholarship programs that we have at every institution of higher learning? Can you imagine how many students would have been denied an education were it not for the generosity of others? With her gift Lady Anne Mowlson created a huge footprint of philanthropy that has touched millions of students and enormously impacted the intellectual capacity of our country.
Another significant philanthropic footprint changed the medical history of the world.
Englishman Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1929, but he did not meet with much success in producing quantities of the antibiotic. In 1938 Dr. Ernest Chain picked up the research again and began to have limited success in treating deadly infections in humans. As war began to rage in Europe it became obvious that the use of penicillin would be critical in saving lives from infection and disease caused by the ravages of war. There wasn’t money in Europe to fund the continued research and to meet the demand for the drug.
Dr. Chain and his colleague, Dr. Howard Florey, went to the United States because they had heard that these crazy people in the U.S. give money away! The Rockefeller Foundation stepped up with funds to produce massive quantities of the drug. By the end of World War II, the US was producing 650 billion units of penicillin per month. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of lives have been saved in the decades since because of the investment made by philanthropy.
There is another story of the impact of philanthropy on medicine that we often forget about. This one is not about one wealthy donor or one generous foundation, but a story of the foot print of thousands and thousands of small donors. It is the story of the Salk Vaccine. In 1938, President Frank Roosevelt established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The President contracted polio as an adult, and he knew research was needed to give great attention to this disease which caused death or life-changing paralysis to its victims, mostly children.
President Roosevelt also knew the U. S. government did not have the money to fund the research needed. Under the umbrella of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, he used his name and leadership to guide the organization into finding a cure for polio. Their approach, which turned out to be sheer genius, was to ask Americans for dimes to fund the research. It was an idea that caught fire throughout the country and was the first time Americans had been asked to take action to benefit science. Comedian Eddie Cantor coined the phrase “March of Dimes” and called upon his radio listeners to send their dimes directly to the White House. Seventeen years after its founding and well more than 4 billion dimes later, the foundation announced the discovery of the Salk vaccine, a world-changing scientific achievement funded by the small gifts of millions of Americans.
Today’s givers follow in these foot prints of philanthropy and leave their own foot prints for others to follow. Our generosity today will continue to determine who we are as a country.
Marilyn Abegg-Glass is President/Owner of Marilyn Abegg and Associates, Philanthropic Counsel. She is a charter member of the Women’s Fund of Smith County and serves on the board of directors.