A Supertanker of Anti-cancer Funding

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1971

Daniel Ludwig grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan near Ludwig’s Pier, built by his grandfather in a little port, from which four of his uncles captained vessels plying the Great Lakes. So when his natural entrepreneurial instincts began to show themselves it’s not surprising they took a nautical form. As a 9-year-old he paid $75 (which he’d earned selling popcorn and shining shoes) to buy a small sunken boat which he promptly salvaged and rented out. Bitten by the bug of commercial imagination, he left school after eighth grade and went to work. At age 19 he bought an old paddle steamer with $5,000 of borrowed money, and slowly built a shipping fleet around it. After World War II he started building tankers in Japan, using cheap local labor and a new technique he’d overseen which welded rather than riveted the ships together. Creating a series of ever-larger vessels, he pioneered the supertanker, and built his shipping firm into one of the largest in the world.

Ludwig branched out into mining, real estate, and other projects, and by 1976 he was one of only two billionaires in the U.S. Despite his wealth, he remained frugal: flying economy class, famously wearing the same plastic raincoat around Manhattan for years, walking to work, and owning only a 16-year-old Buick as a car when he died at age 95 in 1992.

Ludwig gave away nearly all of his money—and to a single entity, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Neither the donor nor any of his family members had ever been afflicted by cancer, yet he recognized the disease as a scourge of many innocent victims. Beginning slowly with endowed professorships and other support, the Institute delivered major gifts in 2006 to medical research arms at six institutions: Johns Hopkins, MIT, Harvard, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

In 2014, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research made its final big donation—offering $540 million to those same six academic cancer centers to endow different aspects of fundamental cancer research at each. (Prevention and early detection at Hopkins, metastasis at MIT, and so forth.) This brought Ludwig’s total contributions to anti-cancer studies to a fighting total of $2.5 billion.