Last week, legendary country singer and pop culture icon Dolly Parton received a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. What makes this story interesting is that her philanthropy catalyzed the creation of the medicine she received. Parton is an example of how private philanthropy is often behind the biggest medical discoveries and the distribution of life-saving treatments.
In a viral Twitter message, the singer tweeted, “Dolly gets a dose of her own medicine” and colorfully admonished her fans to do the same. In an accompanying video shot–no pun intended–just before the doctor arrived with her vaccine, Parton broke out in song, crooning one of her classics, Jolene, but updated for the occasion: “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine. I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”
In April 2020, Parton first donated $1 million for coronavirus research to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. At the time, little was known about the coronavirus. However, efforts to fund a cure were already underway.
The Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership between federal agencies, universities, and pharmaceutical companies reduced regulatory red tape and granted federal funds to private industry to expedite the development and production of multiple vaccines. The federal government later provided Moderna with $1 billion for the creation and testing of its vaccine. In November, Parton learned her donation was used for the first part of the research into the Moderna vaccine.
Parton’s gift reminds us of the incredibly critical role that private philanthropy plays in providing initial funding for early-stage medical research. Vanderbilt’s Dr. Mark Denison, a professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology and the leader of the research effort for the vaccine, credited Parton’s seed funding with advancing the vaccine: “Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them.”
Throughout our history, there are examples of donors and foundations funding research into diseases ravishing society. In the 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation funded the development of a yellow fever vaccine. A decade prior, the Carnegie Corporation funded the discovery of insulin and its use in saving diabetic patients. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds the fights against malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, polio, and other diseases.
Parton’s Moderna vaccine gift is far from the only philanthropic mark she has made. As Philanthropy Roundtable executive senior fellow Howard Husock wrote late last year in the City Journal, Parton’s track record sets a model of effective giving for other celebrities to follow:
“Dolly Parton has emerged as that rare celebrity known for truly effective philanthropy rather than scandal or high-profile political statements. She has just donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University in support of its effort to help develop Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, but her record of effective philanthropy extends back decades. Her Imagination Library sends free books to children in five countries, including the United States. She sent her own money to help those who lost their homes to wildfire in her native Smoky Mountains. Parton has never been publicly political, but her Covid donation, like her previous efforts, is suggestive of a philosophy about poverty and opportunity that makes clear how she found her way to success—and to philanthropy.
Parton’s philanthropy has worked to make life better for others for decades and it’s working to bring us closer to the end of this pandemic.