May 21, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
May 21, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Philanthropy, Herbert Irving and Passover

I love Myron and Phyllis Studner but, in truth. I know little about them. What I do know is that Myron was a very successful businessman and, at some point, the two of them had an amicable divorce that left Phyllis much more than comfortable. Life went on, Phyllis remarried, and around 2003 Myron passed away. I don’t know what your former spouses would do, but Phyllis donated two endowed research professorships to Columbia in Myron’s name. (We are talking millions.) After some back-and-forth in my department and at the Cancer Center, and after a pleasant luncheon at the faculty club with Phyllis and her estate attorney, and with the approval of the provost and board of trustees of the University, I was honored to be named the first Myron M. Studner Professor of Cancer Research.

I tell this tale to illustrate the importance of philanthropy to the finances of universities and cancer centers—one of the trio of sources along with research funding and tuition. We have spoken previously of the importance of administrators—deans, heads of cancer centers—and what they do. Perhaps their most important roles are in attracting and cajoling donors in one form or another. A recent result of this phenomenon has been the renaming of many of our schools in response to the unusually large donations made.

While I don’t usually use this column to refer to parochial events or accomplishments at my own institution, Columbia, I think so highly of one particular philanthropist (aside from Phyllis Studner) to make him and his wife the focus of the remainder of this article. Herbert and Florence Irving were the largest donors in the history of Columbia University, and multiple structures at Columbia, including the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, are named after them.

Both Herbert and Florence (Rapoport) Irving were born in Brooklyn to parents of modest means. Herbert was born in 1917, went to Wharton for his BA and MBA, and then ended up in the military during the war, participating in the landing at Normandy. He served in the Quartermaster Corps; he was involved in the transport of frozen food from overseas and ultimately became the director for it. At the time, this was a new technology as were many others that had been developed in response to the exigencies of the war and its needs.

After the war, he joined with two partners to utilize the skills he had acquired in food transport to create a company to provide such services to the civilian population. They had outstanding success and expanded rapidly, ultimately growing to become Sysco, which went public in 1969, and has grown to become the world’s largest company involved in food distribution and transport.

Herbert Irving apparently was treated medically at Columbia at some point, was grateful, and began his contributions. He had a particular interest in supporting cancer research, which he saw as a major area needing support. His and his wife’s donations to the Cancer Center, which was renamed after him, totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is also worth mentioning that they were major donors in the arts as well, especially in art of the Far East—they made major contributions to the Metropolitan Museum to support its Japanese collection and also made significant donations to support the Metropolitan’s Egyptian Room.

One of the donations by the Irvings was utilized for construction of the Irving Cancer Research Center, a building on St. Nicholas Avenue that housed most of the basic science research activities of the Cancer Center. It was opened to tremendous fanfare in 2005 with a large ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring the Irvings and local politicians from northern Manhattan. The University and Medical School also took the occasion to honor the Irvings for their many donations and contributions to the Medical School.

The consequence was a large gala formal dinner with all the trimmings. Amazingly, because of their donations to the Met, the dinner was held in the Egyptian Room of the Met with hundreds of attendees (which included the Myron M. Studner Professor of Cancer Research and his lovely wife, Elie).

After dinner, the president of the University spoke and lauded the Irvings, then the dean of the medical school, then the head of the Cancer Center. The hundreds of people in the reception area were respectful as they listened to tributes being poured on the donors. Most of the crowd consisted of distinguished scientists and their spouses, many of foreign origin, most non-Jewish, most of whom had never met the Irvings.

Finally, Herbert Irving was brought to the microphone. He and Florence were each about 5-feet tall or slightly more, and were every bit the look of everyone’s old Jewish grandparents. Herbert looked around and said, “Several thousand years ago, my ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and built all the tombs and structures you see here, and then, by a miracle, we were freed. We have had a rough time over the years, but I am glad we are able to contribute now and be recognized for it. We are now, thank God, free.”

I guess the Irvings never forgot who they were or where they came from.


Alfred I. Neugut, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New York Presbyterian and Mailman School of Public Health in New York. Email: [email protected].

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Always seek the advice of your qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles