A Pioneer in Philanthropy's Fight Against Cancer Is Still Going Strong after 70 Years

Elsa U. Pardee was born in the 19th century—eons ago in medical science years—but she's still making an impact on cancer research and care today. You see, Pardee was lucky enough to be married to one of the founders of a little company called Dow Chemical, but unlucky enough to get breast cancer. Before she succumbed to the disease in 1944 at age 59, she directed that $1 million of Dow stock be used to establish a foundation "for the promotion of the control and cure of cancer."

What have we learned in 70 years? Well, for one thing, we now know that $1 million of circa-1944 Dow stock can be an excellent basis for a philanthropic organization, assuming prudent fiscal management, which was evidently the case here. The initial bequest has grown into more than $90 million.

In the last seven decades, the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation has given away more than $125 million to researchers at institutions throughout the U.S., and still grants millions each year. In 2014, for example, the foundation dispersed about $3.46 million, mostly in $100,000 to $300,000 awards.

(As an aside, if these numbers aren't a case for creating a foundation that exists in perpetuity over a spend-down model, we don't what is.) 

The foundation gives priority to researchers who are new to the field of cancer research, or to established research investigators examining new approaches to cancer cures. Pardee also provides financial assistance for cancer patients at several treatment centers in Michigan, where the organization is based, and elsewhere.

It's the foundation's focus on funding innovative and unproven ideas"small-scale, short-term projects which may be difficult to fund elsewhere until some interesting results are obtained"that's more timely than ever. Grantmakers like this that support early-stage research are an increasingly crucial link in the research life cycle. First of all, they're of great importance to early-career clinical and translational researchersthink junior faculty who don't have track records as principal investigatorswho are in the toughest position when it comes to competition for dwindling federal research dollars.

Pardee is not the only group looking out for young researchers. For example, we've written about Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance's annual prize for early-career scientists—a handsome $200,000 per year for three years—although it's restricted to investigators based in the New York area.

Beyond supporting younger researchers and novel approaches, early-stage research grants address one of the thorniest problems in medical research: the painfully long road from bench to bedside. Decades can and do pass between the discoveries and developments in basic science—say, genetics—and the application of that science into real treatments. But people with cancer or other serious diseases don't want to hear that a cure is "only a decade or three away." No less an entity than the National Institutes of Health recognized this when it created an entire program less than 10 years ago to improve and accelerate the translation of science into medical care. This makes Pardee's efforts to jump-start the clinical research process as modern as it gets.