Markey Trust Launches Biomedical Careers

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1983

By the time Lucille Markey died in 1982, at age 85, she had seen a lot of death, sickness, and suffering, so she left her fortune (derived from her father-in-law’s founding of the Calumet Baking Powder Company) to medical research. To get the biggest possible bang for her buck, Markey stipulated that her trust should push all of its money out the door over just a 15-year period. As a result of this concentrated burst, and some very sage leadership by those she put in charge, the Markey Trust became one of the most important forces in U.S. medical research from the mid-1980s through the time when it closed its doors for good in 1997, distributing more than $500 million in 200 grants.

An important part of the success of Markey’s philanthropy was the flexibility it offered to investigators. Funding from NIH or NSF can rarely be used for preliminary investigations or risky science. Nor can it be used to recruit new scientists or graduate students or to build or equip a lab. Forget about shifting money from one year to another or one project to another, under a government grant, no matter how salutary the effects. And don’t try to dramatically change research directions to follow new leads with government funding. The Markey grants, however, explicitly allowed these sorts of things in order to encourage innovation by recipients, and maximum efficiency. The trustees and experts who gave the Trust its marching orders in a series of intense meetings in 1984 emphasized several targets: support for young investigators with promise; trusting outstanding researchers with wide discretionary powers in using funds; supporting fields with the biggest upside; funding fields that are important but not popular; being willing to pay for the infrastructure (buildings, equipment, and people) necessary for great research, not just the end research.

In addition to being flexible, Markey was patient. One of the distinctive contributions of medical philanthropy has been to support top young researchers through the “valley of death” that extends from the end of their training until they are able to establish their reputations and begin winning grants from government science agencies. The Markey Scholars Awards are now considered exemplars for nurturing young talent in this way. The awards offered each recipient funding for five to seven years, plus money to establish his or her own lab. The 113 Markey awardees turned out to be extraordinarily successful and productive. Dr. Eric Lander is an example; during his fellowship he refined new concepts of gene mapping in the lab Markey supported, and today he heads the largest genome center in the world—the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The trust’s savvy extended right to its shutdown. It produced a handbook on how to effectively spend a foundation right down to closure. And it paid the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a major assessment of its programs (published several years after the trust’s shutdown) focused on two questions: Were its funds well spent? What can others learn from Markey’s experience, both in terms of improving biomedical research and refining philanthropic practice? Academy investigators published five separate reports, and gave the trust brilliant grades for its influence on biomedical progress.