Bob Swanson ’69 — the man responsible for launching the biotechnology industry — in 1976 co-founded Genentech, now the largest company in the world to develop new therapies to treat cancer.
But ironically, in 1999, Swanson himself died of brain cancer at age 52.
“Bob died so young,” his wife, Judy, now says. “He had much more to contribute toward his goal of changing the world for the better. Our gift to the Koch Institute is one way his dream can continue.”
Recently, Judy Swanson made the lead gift to establish the Robert A. Swanson Biotechnology Center in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.
She says the gift is not only a gift to MIT but also a gift to her husband, who wanted always to improve the lives of others.
Now, she, along with two of Bob Swanson’s friends — Fred Middleton ’71 and Ken Morse ’68, both former MIT roommates of Bob — have made gifts toward raising $25 million to establish the Center. The Class of 1969 is also promoting this effort through its reunion giving campaign in honor of what soon would be Bob Swanson’s 40th reunion.
“The Swanson Biotechnology Center will not only remember Bob but will also reflect his commitment to doing truly great science,” Judy Swanson says. “We believe that by having the best resources, the best people, and the best equipment, the ultimate result will be significantly better ways to treat cancer.
“Bob loved MIT,” she continues. “It changed his life. At MIT, he not only learned the value of “no-box” thinking, but he also developed lifelong meaningful relationships. Without the support of Fred [Middleton] and Ken [Morse], the Swanson Biotechnology Center would not exist.”
Fred Middleton, who made the gift with his wife, Carole, says: “Bob never really had an opportunity to have his great work recognized. I’m sure that if he had lived, he would have wanted to establish a center like this. That’s why a lot of his friends thought it would be a wonderful way to honor him.”
Ken Morse, now senior lecturer and managing director of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center, who met Swanson, a fraternity brother, during rush week in the fall of 1965, remained close with him over the years.
Morse remembers Bob’s first day at MIT, when he arrived from Miami, carrying a fine felt hat like those worn by the gentlemen of the day. He also recalls that Swanson arrived with a clothes trunk with his full name stenciled across the lid. (Morse says: “That trunk served as Bob’s coffee table until he got married.”)
“Bob led by example with personal humility, a probing intellect, and an irrepressible, down-to-earth sense of humor,” he says, adding that what he most liked about his friend were his big, ambitious goals and small ego. “He was an extraordinary person and the best possible friend; he inspired us to move beyond our limits and reach out to help others.
“My wife, Laura, and I would do anything to support the memory of Bob at MIT. We are strong believers in interdisciplinary collaboration. We think that a center within the Koch Institute will benefit ambitious researchers in unpredictable ways. They will have spontaneous interaction with like-minded geniuses, and we believe that breakthrough innovation will take place at the intersection of different disciplines.”
Fred Middleton, now managing director at Sanderling Biomedical Venture Capital, was hired by Swanson in 1978 to join Genentech, where he served for six years as chief financial officer. “Bob took my whole career trajectory in the direction of biotech, where I’ve been working for 30 years. He is more responsible than any other person for my career development,” he says.
“Bob was a visionary. He knew where he wanted to go and was very dedicated, persistent, and even stubborn about getting there. He understood the need to develop new therapies in cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. He just intuitively knew those were great opportunities in medicine.
“Genentech has become the largest oncology company in the world in terms of new and innovative cancer therapies, but it was unfortunate that none could help Bob himself. There just wasn’t the right therapy yet available that could make an impact to help him when he was diagnosed.”
Not only did Judy Swanson nine years ago experience her husband’s death, but three years ago, she also experienced the death of the couple’s older daughter, Katie. These difficult losses, she says, taught her an important lesson.
“One thing I learned,” she says, “is you don’t need large amounts of money to make life better. What makes you happy is having good health, good friends, and finding meaning in life by contributing to the betterment of the world we live in.” Judy Swanson, now president of the Swanson Foundation, in many ways is continuing the work that her husband left undone.
“Bob had big dreams and truly believed that we could do something that would be life-changing,” she says. “Choosing MIT [to establish the Center] was easy. MIT has the integrity, intelligence, insight, and ability to truly make a difference in the prevention, treatment, and cure of cancer. Our daughter, Erica, and I are so proud to be part of this new venture.
“It gives us great joy to fund research and science that can ultimately affect people’s lives. When you realize that just one person’s life has changed for the better, it is very meaningful. It creates a bond that unites us.”