May 7, 2024

Salk Institute mourns the loss of philanthropist Joan Jacobs

Salk News

Salk Institute mourns the loss of philanthropist Joan Jacobs

LA JOLLA—The Salk Institute lost one of its greatest supporters and one of San Diego’s most generous philanthropists when Joan Jacobs died on May 6, 2024, in La Jolla, California. She was 91 years old.

Joan Jacobs and her husband, Irwin, transformed the world of philanthropy in San Diego with their extraordinary giving to biomedical research, arts, education, advocacy, and healthcare. Their names are linked to many local organizations, inextricably so to the Salk Institute.

Irwin and Joan Jacobs
Irwin and Joan Jacobs
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Credit: Salk Institute

“You simply cannot tell the tale of Salk’s accomplishments over the last 20 years without Joan and Irwin,” says Salk President Gerald Joyce. “I’ve never met more generous, salt-of-the-earth people than the Jacobs family. Joan was a dynamic person who used her vast experience, intelligence, and means to better the lives of countless individuals in San Diego. The Institute is indebted to her, and we will continue to work hard every day to be good stewards of her exceeding generosity.”

The couple’s involvement with the Salk Institute began in 2003 when Irwin joined the Salk International Council, a group of professionals dedicated to advocating for Salk science. After Irwin retired from Qualcomm in 2006, he became the chair of Salk’s Board of Trustees, a position he held until 2016. He remained a trustee until 2023. Continuing the family’s tradition of support for the Institute, Joan and Irwin’s granddaughter-in-law, Amy Jacobs, now serves on Salk’s Board.

In his role as Board Chair, Irwin spearheaded Salk’s first capital campaign, which raised $360 million for the Institute. In 2008, he and Joan established the Joan Klein and Irwin Mark Jacobs Senior Scientist Endowed Challenge, ultimately endowing all 20 chairs for Salk full professors. This level of support ensured that Salk scientists could continue to pursue the bold, life-changing science for which the Institute is renowned.

After the Chair Challenge, Joan and Irwin launched Salk’s Innovation Grants Program, which supports out-of-the-box, potentially trailblazing research ideas that would otherwise not be eligible for traditional grant funding. Over the years, the program has supported dozens of projects and resulted in paradigm-shifting discoveries in healthy aging, cancer, neuroscience, and more.

In addition to science, the Jacobs family has played a significant role in supporting San Diego’s art and music scene over the years. Joan and Irwin were steadfast supporters of Symphony at Salk, the Institute’s annual “concert under the stars,” where the San Diego Symphony performs with a guest artist in the Salk Courtyard. This year’s event on August 17 will pay tribute to Joan.

In total, Joan and Irwin Jacobs have given more than $102 million to support the Salk Institute’s life-changing discoveries and the people who make them possible.

Born on January 18, 1933, Joan grew up in New York City, where she attended and graduated from the Barnard School for Girls. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Cornell University in 1954, the same year she and Irwin married. After college, she worked for the Groton Central Schools outside Ithaca, New York, and at Boston Lying-in Hospital (now Brigham and Women's Hospital), one of the nation’s first maternity hospitals.

In 1966, the Jacobs family moved to La Jolla. It was a trip to San Diego the previous year when the couple first visited the newly constructed Salk Institute, an experience that set the wheels in motion for their move to the West Coast. The following year, proximity to Salk and the opportunity for Irwin to teach at the new university across the street—UC San Diego—were deciding factors in the couple’s decision to relocate from Boston to La Jolla.

Over the years, Joan received numerous honors recognizing her philanthropy and good will. In 1995, she received the David K. Kroll Leadership Award for exemplary service, dedication, and commitment to the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center of San Diego County. Joan received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts in 2008. In 2015, she received the Helen Bull Vandervort Award from Cornell University's College of Human Ecology. She and Irwin received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2018 and, in 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union named its historic docket of Supreme Court cases after Joan and Irwin Jacobs, both longtime supporters of the ACLU.

The Salk Institute extends its sincerest condolences to the Jacobs family for their loss.

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Unlocking the secrets of life itself is the driving force behind the Salk Institute. Our team of world-class, award-winning scientists pushes the boundaries of knowledge in areas such as neuroscience, cancer research, aging, immunobiology, plant biology, computational biology and more. Founded by Jonas Salk, developer of the first safe and effective polio vaccine, the Institute is an independent, nonprofit research organization and architectural landmark: small by choice, intimate by nature, and fearless in the face of any challenge.