Both of Jon Huntsman’s parents died of cancer. In 1992, he was diagnosed with the disease himself—the first of his four separate personal battles with the killer. His stints in the hospital convinced him that better treatments, better research, and better institutional experiences for cancer patients were all sorely needed.
After inventing, at the company he founded, the clamshell container that cradled McDonald’s Big Mac, Huntsman added many other commercial successes, so he had the resources to act on his dream. He brokered a deal with a big pharmaceutical company to split the $250 million cost of building a state-of-the-art cancer treatment and research center in Salt Lake City, to fill a void in the Rocky Mountain region. Then the company backed out at the last minute. Huntsman and his family decided to foot the entire bill.
A patient care center opened in 1999, followed by the new hospital in 2004. Today, the Huntsman Cancer Institute serves 60,000 patients every year and performs 3,000 surgeries. The treatment facilities are renowned for their peaceful beauty, comfort, family-friendliness, and attention to patient services. The institution now ranks in the 99th percentile in patient satisfaction. The six states of the Intermountain West region finally have the comprehensive cancer-treatment center they previously lacked.
In addition, the HCI conducts groundbreaking research on genetic cancer patterns that could change the way the disease is approached across the globe. One reason Huntsman placed his cancer institute in Utah is because the Mormon church has compiled meticulous genealogical records that can be cross-indexed with patient records to uncover patterns illuminating the genetic aspects of cancer. HCI now manages a database of 16 million people that links health records to genealogies—the largest such resource in the world. “It’s an incredibly rich source of information that supports research on genetics, epidemiology, and public health,” says Mary Beckerle, director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Already, HCI researchers are credited with identifying more cancer-causing genes than any lab in the world, including the genes responsible for inherited breast, ovarian, and colon cancers, as well as melanoma and malignant paraganglioma. In late 2013 Huntsman announced he would make an additional $100 million donation to the institute, bringing his total giving to that organization to $450 million. Huntsman’s lifetime charitable giving stood at $1.6 billion at the end of 2013, making him just one of 19 people in the world to have donated at least a billion dollars (there are about 1,200 living billionaires).
- Philanthropy magazine profile, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/the_fearless_philanthropist