About That Big Genome Give to Washington University: Longstanding Ties, Personal Pain

What do you get when you combine a family-owned company that's been headquartered in the same region for decades, a death in the family that motivates medical research, and sprinkle in longtime dedication to a school? Well, these are precisely the ingredients involved in a recent $25 million gift by James S. McDonnell III and his wife, Elizabeth, to the Genome Institute at Washington University's Medical School. 

We've written about the James S. McDonnell Foudation before, based in St. Louis and founded in 1950 by McDonnell's father, aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell. The robust foundation gives out millions of dollars each year, mainly in science and medical research. 

Related: What the McDonnell Foundation Wants to Know About Human Cognition

After graduating from Princeton in 1958, McDonnell was an aerodynamics engineer at McDonnell Aircraft. He went on to hold several managerial positions before serving as a vice president from 1973 until his retirement in 1991. He was a director of the corporation until its merger with the Boeing in 1997. 

So why Washington University? This answer has several parts, but luckily is not as convoluted as decoding the human genome.

First let's go back to patriarach James S. McDonnell. Although he attended Princeton and MIT, he served as a Washington University trustee and board chair in the 1960s, and as an adviser until his death in 1980. As the McDonnell family became increasingly involved at the school, they also started to build quite the philanthropic track record. Here are a few of the highlights: A gift in the late 1960s established the McDonnell Medical Sciences Building. In 1968, McDonnell endowed the James S. McDonnell Professorship of Genetics. In 1975, a gift created the James S. McDonnell Department of Genetics, one of the first departments in a school of medicine dedicated to the field of genetics.

James S. McDonnell began a long tradition of giving back at Washington University, regardless of alumni connnection. Here we have our first important lesson of this story, which is that region sometimes trumps alumni loyalty. This is not to say that the McDonnell family hasn't been supportive of Princeton either, but as we've been saying here at IP, quite a few alumni gifts aren't just motivated by loyalty to a school but to the region where a funder builds his or her career.

In the case of the McDonnells, that's St. Louis—a city that's not only home to Washington University, but also McDonnell Park, McDonnell Planetarium and James S. McDonnell Boulevard near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. O.K., you get the point.

But besides the McDonnell family's connections to the area, there are other far more personal reasons why James S. McDonnell III and Elizabeth are committed to medical research. In 1972, their daughter Peggy died of cancer at the age of two. 

This might be a good time to bring up that the Genome Institute at Washington University, founded in 1993, touts itself as one of three large-scale federally funded centers in the country dedicated to "researching the genetic underpinnings of disease and developing personalized treatments for patients." The institute was at the forefront of the Human Genome Project and is credited for contributing 25 percent of the blueprint finished in 2003. In 2010, the institute partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and has since sequenced 750 pediatric cancer patients. 

In other words, there's a strong personal backstory behind the McDonnellses backing the Genome Institute. We see this all the time—funders get pulled into a medical research cause after someone close to them passes. After their loved one succumbs, they advocate for others suffering from the disease, rare and common alike.

It's also worth emphasizing how long this commitment can last. The McDonnells lost their daughter more than forty years ago and yet their commitment to medical and science research into pediatric health problems is very much a current passion. 

Apart from trying to find the genetic origins of cancer, the Genome Institute also researches diseases such as diabetes, autism and Alzheimer’s disease, all with the aim of developing more effective diagnoses and treatments for patients. 

McDonnell serves as director of the board of the Children’s Discovery Institute, a joint initiative of the Wash University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He also sits on the board of St. Louis Children’s Hospital and serves on the School of Medicine National Council. McDonnell's brother John, is a trustee at Washington University and his wife, Anne, is an alumna.

Related - James S. McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Science Research