Philanthropist commits $20 million to support Washington University research

St. Louis businesswoman and philanthropist Edith L. Wolff has made a commitment of $20 million to support biomedical research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The funds will establish the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Institute, which will support biomedical research projects that lead to the prevention, treatment and cure of disease.

Edith Wolff
Edith Wolff

The Institute has a mandate to back promising research opportunities that depend on interdepartmental collaboration and that lack other major sources of funding. Its goals reflect those of BioMed 21, the University’s multidisciplinary research initiative to rapidly translate basic research findings into advances in medical treatment.

Mrs. Wolff’s late husband, Alan Wolff, founded Wolff Construction Co., a real-estate development, investment and management company, in the late 1940s. During the ’50s and ’60s, the company built numerous shopping centers in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas. After Mr. Wolff’s death in 1989, Mrs. Wolff became president of the company, which has continued to flourish under her direction and now focuses on real-estate investment and on management and leasing of commercial buildings.

The Wolffs long held a dedication to community service and philanthropy in the St. Louis area and for more than 30 years directed funds to medical research at the School of Medicine. In addition to contributions to many research areas in medicine, Mrs. Wolff endowed two professorships. The Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professorship in Medicine was established in 1999 to support progress in understanding cancer. That chair is held by Timothy J. Ley, M.D., a specialist in cancer research. In 2003, she endowed the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professorship in Medicine, which is held by William A. Peck, M.D., former executive vice chancellor and dean of the School of Medicine and now director of the Center for Health Policy. She also established the Edith L. Wolff Scholarship-Loan Fund, a non-interest-bearing fund for medical students.

“Washington University has been very fortunate to have benefited from Mr. and Mrs. Wolff’s remarkable generosity over the years,” says Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “And now we have the opportunity again to express our gratitude to Mrs. Wolff for an outstanding contribution that will support many scientists, physicians and students at the School of Medicine. Mrs. Wolff has always believed strongly in helping others, and she has demonstrated her belief in the promise of biomedical research to ease suffering and improve people’s lives. For that we are immensely thankful.”

Mrs. Wolff says her husband was reluctant to receive public recognition for their philanthropic endeavors, but she has allowed them to be recognized to encourage others to be generous.

“If public recognition can set a philanthropic example, that would be all I would wish for from it,” Mrs. Wolff says. “My husband and I worked hard and were successful. We’ve always wanted to use that success to aid those least able to help themselves. Helping advance medical research is one of the ways we believed we could make a difference for the future.”

“Mrs. Wolff’s commitment to the School of Medicine will enhance research efforts within many of our departments and have a profound positive impact on the School of Medicine’s research mission,” says Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “I’m thankful for her generosity, which will enable interdisciplinary research that is so essential to progress in modern biomedical science.”

Mrs. Wolff’s dedication to the School of Medicine is owed in part to her long-standing relationship with I. Jerome Flance, M.D., professor emeritus of clinical medicine and Mr. and Mrs. Wolff’s personal physician of more than 50 years.

“Edith is very knowledgeable about the need for and the potential of basic medical research,” says Flance. “Both she and her husband wanted to create a legacy that would serve generations of individuals.”

In 2004, Mrs. Wolff received an honorary doctorate from Washington University in recognition of her extraordinary support of life-saving medical research. She has served on the boards of the Jewish Center for the Aged, Metropolitan Employment and Rehabilitation Services and the St. Louis Arc, which serves the needs of people with developmental disabilities. For her philanthropic work, she has received numerous awards from the community and from Washington University.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.