Every Gift Has a Story

Philanthropy makes it possible for the School to launch new programs, recruit talented faculty, and educate the next generation of leaders.

November 29, 2021

The generosity of philanthropists has brought innovative programming, life-changing research, and talented students to the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Donors ensure that the School is at the forefront, whether it’s tackling the climate crisis or COVID-19. “Public health is front and center these days,” says Dean Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH. “But when times are good, the public often forgets about the role our field plays in keeping us healthy and giving us a better quality of life. I’m grateful to our funders who never forget why we need to invest in public health.” Get to know some of our donors and you too will be inspired.

Transforming Public Health in Africa

During her 14 years on the School’s board, including as vice chair and Executive Committee member, Betsy Williams, MPH ’03, has brought her passion for international public health and her family’s legacy of catalyzing philanthropy to advance humanity. When she enrolled for her MPH, she was already committed to health and human rights, having worked at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Physicians for Human Rights. She lived with her grandmother, philanthropist Norma Hess, in Manhattan, and they had dinner together every night. Williams’ observation that students didn’t have a common space where they could bond led to one of the family’s first gifts: Hess Commons.

Williams’ support has continued. Not long after she graduated, her family’s foundation endowed the Leon Hess Professorship in Environmental Health Sciences, named for Williams’ grandfather.  They contributed to the Allan Rosenfield Scholarship Fund in honor of the former dean and Williams’ personal mentor, and she created a scholarship fund to honor her late friend Judson Wolfe.

But Williams is most proud of how she has championed the work of Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH ’91, MPA, to address access and equity in global health, including the critical response to the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “It was a personal mission for me to endow Wafaa’s chair,” she says, and her leadership was essential. Having worked with the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, she knew the impact the research could have. Williams leveraged funds from the Hess Foundation and the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) to endow the chair named after amfAR’s founder, Mathilde Krim, PhD.

Today, Williams co-chairs the nonprofit she founded with former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Emerging Public Leaders, to foster competent and ethical civil servants among Africa’s best and brightest. “I joined the Board when I was deeply ensconced in public health,” she says. “Today it’s my link to public health. It’s where I still get to think about public health deeply, and that’s important to me.”

Promoting Pathogen Detection
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) quickly rose to the forefront of diagnosis and testing, as they had done for so many outbreaks. Tackling pathogens as they race around the planet requires partners such as the Skoll Foundation, Amazon, the Jack Rudin Family Foundation, The Scarlet Feather Fund, and anonymous donors, who, with support and strategic engagement by the School’s Board, made it possible for CII scientists to lend their expertise. They also helped in the creation of early-stage funding for CII’s Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics, a program to avert future worldwide pandemics. CII’s expertise in deadly outbreaks, however, would never have developed without early funding from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, The Mailman Foundation, and Sommer Associates. Those philanthropists helped establish the Center and endowed professorships. In the ensuing years, support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Jane Botsford Johnson Foundation, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, Google.org, the Simons Foundation, John and Cynthia Gunn, and others who prefer not to be named, made possible CII’s pioneering advancements in understanding autism, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, and Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. As more diseases emerge, it’s a good bet that CII and its funders will be there to fight back.

transforming a school of public health

Phyllis Mailman and her children, Josh Mailman and Jody Wolfe, were at an impasse in how best to honor their late husband and father, Joseph L. Mailman. Then serendipity led them to pledge an extraordinary $33 million to Columbia’s School of Public Health. Their endowment gift, made in 1998, was at that time the largest single philanthropic donation ever made to a school of public health. “It was a very [exciting] idea to be able to name an important school in an important city after this man for whom we had such regard,” says Phyllis Mailman. She had been unaware of the difficulty that public health schools have trying to build endowments until one of her lawyers had lunch with then-Dean Allan Rosenfield, MD ’59. Rosenfield laid out the problem: Public health graduates do lifesaving work but they don’t get rich doing it, so creating an endowment from alumni is slow going. The Mailmans were intrigued. Public health’s population-level focus, which touches on everything from clean water to vaccines to maternal health, was something they could all get behind. “We discovered that the myriad disciplines within public health resonated across our collective generations,” says Jody Wolfe, president of The Mailman Foundation.

She, her mother, and her brother—all long-serving members of the Board of Advisors—also knew the family patriarch would approve. Joseph Mailman had a broad sense of equity and fairness that would have extended to public health, according to his son. “It’s not just about who can afford the best medical care,” says Josh Mailman. “It’s about having a healthcare system that can cater to all. It speaks to his interest in promoting a fair society.” A prominent businessman, Joseph Mailman gave generously to many causes, especially in health and education, and, as a young man, he actively assisted families in escaping Nazi Germany prior to World

War II. “He went above and beyond,” says Phyllis Mailman. So did the Mailmans’ gift. By making their donation contingent upon acquisition of a dedicated facility, the family paved the way for the move to 722 W. 168th Street, a 200,000-square-foot building with sweeping views of the Hudson River.

And the family has given generously ever since. “Oh behalf of the entire school, I am deeply appreciative of the visionary leadership of the Mailman family,” says Dean Fried. “Without their foundational support at a key time in the School’s development we would, quite literally, not be where we are today.”

Funding The Global HIV Response
AIDS was the leading cause of death worldwide among people ages 15 to 59 when, in 2003, eight foundations answered the call to fund ICAP at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Their goal was to tackle an untenable inequity: People living with HIV in wealthier countries had access to lifesaving treatment, while others had no such hope. At that time, many thought that it would be impossible to bring life-saving medicines to resource-limited Africa. But donors stepped up to support the effort.The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Starr Foundation invested their confidence and funding that enabled Wafaa El-Sadr, who founded and has led ICAP since its inception, to make treatment a reality for families affected by HIV—setting the stage for further scale-up to reach millions in Africa and around the world. “Again and again, we heard the word ‘no,’” El-Sadr once said while describing the all-too-common response to her plan, but “these forward-thinking foundations said ‘yes.’” 

transforming maternal health

In 1985, one year before he would become dean of the School of Public Health, Allan Rosenfield, MD ’59, and his colleague Deborah Maine, DrPH, published a seminal piece in The Lancet challenging the conventional belief that prenatal and preventive care were the best tools to avert maternal deaths during pregnancy and childbirth. Instead, they argued that women in many parts of the world were dying because they lacked access to medical care and emergency obstetrical services—someone trained to do cesarean sections, administer blood transfusions, or treat preeclampsia. That article helped convince the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to give the school its single largest contribution to date: $50 million in 1999 to support an international health program to prevent maternal deaths. Today, the Gates Foundation—the School’s largest donor overall, having given over $130 million in total—continues to support the School’s Averting Maternal Death and Disability (AMDD) Program, which has collaborated with United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and governments in more than 50 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It also supports the scholarship of Lynn Freedman, JD, MPH ’90, who directs AMDD, and who has brought a human rights focus to the issue of maternal and newborn health. “The funding supported our efforts to link our fairly nuanced and broad-based conceptual understanding of human rights with our very practical, on-the-ground approach to maternal mortality,” said Freedman. “In recent years, that has led to the development of the field now called respectful maternity care, which seeks to eradicate disrespectful and abusive treatment of women during birth and to build a health system—indeed, a social and political system—that supports and values the dignity and well-being of every person giving birth.” Her continuation and expansion of Rosenfield and Maine’s early work in maternal health shows the long reach of philanthropic donations.

Transforming Approaches to Incarceration and Gun Violence

Leonard and Claire Tow grew up in working-class Brooklyn. Later, after successful careers as pioneers of the cable television industry, they focused their philanthropic efforts on funding medicine, culture, and higher education. “Claire and I came from very low-income environments,” says Leonard Tow, MA ’52, PhD ’60, a member of the School’s Board of Advisors. “Material plenty was not something we knew. But life, somehow, provided us with surpluses that we contribute to others.” When their children—Emily, Frank, and Andrew—joined The Tow Foundation, the family added criminal justice reform to its giving. In 2014, The Tow Foundation funded a two-day conference at the School on public health and mass incarceration. “It was exciting to bring together faculty focused on this area to discuss mass incarceration from an epidemiological viewpoint,” says Emily Tow, the Foundation’s president. The next year, the Tow Faculty Leadership Scholars program was created to help junior faculty build leadership skills and conduct research. Meanwhile, the conference led to the creation of Columbia Mailman School’s Incarceration and Public Health Action Network, which promotes the strengthening of public health/criminal justice reform coursework, research, and advocacy. It also led Olivia Tow—granddaughter of Leonard and Claire and a Tow Foundation trustee, who was inspired by the advocacy of Parkland, Florida, high school students—to support a group of School professors and colleagues launching Columbia SURGE (Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence). Members have conducted research on the impact of state gun laws and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the use of high-capacity magazines, and the effects of gun violence on children. “To have researchers working in their specific areas—public health, trauma, education, politics—approach the issue in such a holistic way was so exciting,” Olivia Tow says. Her grandfather couldn’t be more pleased with her decision. “It’s great to have this association with an institution that appeals to people from their 20s to their 90s,” he says. “I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

Recruiting and Supporting Faculty
Gifts for endowed professorships provide the funding needed to attract highly accomplished faculty leaders and ensure that support for their work will endure into the future. For some donors, endowing a professorship is also a way to honor a notable person from history. Such was the case for a 2008 gift made anonymously to establish the Stephen Smith Professorship, named for a pioneer in sanitary reform in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Stephen Smith, who earned his MD from Columbia in 1850, served as health commissioner of New York and was the first president and co-founder of the American Public Health Association. He was instrumental in transferring responsibility for the mentally ill from county almshouses to state hospitals. “Stephen Smith’s vision for addressing mental health as a public health issue and the principle of ‘no health without mental health’ has guided my research and community collaborations for nearly four decades,” says Stephen Smith Professor Kathleen Sikkema, PhD, chair of the department of Sociomedical Sciences, whose work has focused on mental health interventions for the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS.

Transforming Public Health Messaging 

Robert H. Heilbrunn’s father died just before the 1929 stock market crash, leaving him, an only child, to support his mother. The young Heilbrunn learned how to invest, acquired a fortune, and later gave generously to causes he and his wife, Harriet, believed in. The Heilbrunns helped establish the Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, as well as the Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professorship in Population and Family Health. They also funded several student fellowships. 

Later, their daughter Helaine and her husband, Sid Lerner, became benefactors of the School as well. Sid was a successful Madison Avenue executive known for the popular “Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” campaign. He turned his considerable marketing talents toward public health and, in 2003, he created Meatless Monday, which grew into a global movement to encourage people to skip meat one day of the week. Around the same time, he joined the School’s Board of Advisors, and established the Monday Campaigns, which collaborates with leading public health schools to use the weekly cue to encourage more exercise, nutrition, and stress management. 

In 2013, Sid founded the School’s Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, which focuses on social and behavioral factors associated with health, evaluates public health promotion campaigns, and works to understand the science behind effective campaign models. The couple also endowed the Sidney and Helaine Lerner Professorship of Public Health Promotion, whose incumbent, Gina Wingood, MPH, ScD, directs the Lerner Center. 

Like many longtime donors, the Lerners expanded their philanthropy as the horizons of public health expanded. Sid, who passed away in 2021, left a legacy of impact, which Helaine has continued. She recently gave $5 million to the School to create awareness of adolescent health and advocate for change in global menstrual hygiene management, which has gained recognition as a critical global public health issue. This gift fulfills one of Sid’s goals to address women’s basic needs, which are too often overlooked in public health.

Altruistic Alums
Past and present Alumni Board members support the School with time and resources. Alumni Board President Anette Wu, MD, MPH ’08, PhD, who serves on the Board of Advisors, says members are especially interested in supporting students—via scholarships, job placements, coaching, and networking. “We want to attract the best students,” she says. “We know that when they graduate—because they went to Columbia Mailman School— they’ll be doing work that’s very dear to our hearts.”
Faculty and Staff Give Back
Each year, faculty and staff share their passion for public health education and research by donating to the School. Liliane Zaretsky, director of academic programs for the Department of Epidemiology, gives, in part, because she appreciates that the School is training students to address real-world problems. “I appreciate the richness that I am part of,” she says. “And so I give something back.” 
Advisors Drive Donations
Columbia Mailman School’s Board of Advisors provides vital resources, in particular the unrestricted funding that fuels the School’s investments in new areas of endeavor. “The contributions of our Board—as donors, strategic advisors, and ambassadors—are immeasurable,” says Dean Fried. “They are essential partners in advancing our public health mission.” 

Transforming Response to Climate Change 

During the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Columbia Mailman School partnered with the White House on a special session to highlight the need for greater investment in the study of, and planning for, the health impacts of climate change. That meeting led to the 2017 launch of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education (GCCHE), which aims to grow the workforce of health professionals equipped to recognize and respond to the health challenges of a warming climate. With a membership that now includes 216 schools in over 30 countries, GCCHE has prepared educational resources for schools of medicine, nursing, and public health to use in meeting its goals. The support of the Anahata Foundation has been critical to sustaining GCCHE and positioning it for impact—building its capacity, expanding curricular offerings, providing scholarship support for doctoral students—and recruiting Cecilia Sorensen, MD, who joined GCCHE in July 2021 as director. “Climate change is already exerting a devastating impact on human health,” says Anahata Foundation trustee Mari Arnaud. “The GCCHE has inspired us to expand Anahata’s mission beyond reducing greenhouse emissions to include mitigation of the harmful impacts of global warming on population health.” 

Subsidizing Scholars
Financial aid makes it possible for a diverse range of talented students to acquire a Columbia Mailman School degree. On average, 35 percent of students receive partial or full scholarship support. In the current academic year, the School will award about $5.5 million in aid. One recipient, Lauren Rutherford (’22), decided to get her MPH after completing a Fulbright fellowship researching women’s reproductive rights in Bogotá, Colombia. Now, thanks to the generosity of the Huo Family Foundation, Rutherford attends Columbia Mailman School tuition-free as one of five Huo Scholars. “We are delighted to be able to support students whose aim is to advance public health,” says Yan Huo, one of four trustees at the Foundation. “We are inspired by their dedication and commitment to service, and we look forward to seeing their positive impact in the world.” While searching for graduate school programs, Rutherford was attracted to the breadth of public health courses that Columbia Mailman School offers students. Still, the price tag made her hesitate. “I didn’t think I would get financial aid,” she says. “Getting the scholarship was very much the deciding factor.” 

Science writer Nancy Averett lives in Cincinnati. Her award-winning work has appeared in Discover, Audubon, Sierra, and Scientific American.