Campus & Community

Herchel Smith gives Harvard $100 million

4 min read

Gift provides unprecedented science funding

Herchel Smith, a distinguished chemist and philanthropist, recently bequeathed to Harvard new legacies that, when combined with his lifetime generosity, could amount to $100 million over time to support graduate fellowships, new science professorships, and an exchange program for postdoctoral fellows between Harvard and Cambridge universities. The gift, which is among the largest ever received by Harvard, will provide unprecedented funding for the sciences.

“Herchel Smith’s dedication to supporting science and the research of young scientists was extraordinary,” said Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles. “From when I first met Herchel several decades ago, he was passionate about the contribution that organic chemists and biochemists could make to medicine, and in more recent times, I have had the pleasure of sending him letters from the students who were able to pursue their studies in England through his generosity. These students would always tell him that having the opportunity to exchange ideas with scientists across the Atlantic was an experience they cherished. Herchel was himself a distinguished scientist and a visionary philanthropist. We are deeply grateful to him and to his family for providing even greater opportunities for exchanges between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England.”

“We are living in an unprecedented age for science that will test and challenge our university,” added President Lawrence H. Summers. “Dr. Smith’s gift will provide fellows and faculty with the means and opportunity to make dramatic discoveries and to teach a whole new generation of Harvard students. We are truly grateful for his foresight and his generosity.”

Previously, Smith had endowed the Herchel Smith Harvard Scholarships that encourage Harvard graduates to study for the Ph.D. in the natural or medical sciences or in mathematics at Cambridge University. Since 1985, nearly 40 Herchel Smith Fellows from Harvard have attended Cambridge. In 1992, Smith also created the Herchel Smith Professorship in Molecular Biology at Harvard, a post that is currently held by Nancy E. Kleckner, whose research focuses on the behavior of chromosomes in bacteria and yeast.

The recent bequest will augment both the existing scholarship funds while also naming three professorships in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, one in each of the following subjects: pure mathematics, physics, and computer sciences – as well as creating a new professorship in molecular genetics. The balance of the bequest supports an endowment for research fellowships to enable Ph.D. graduates from Harvard to pursue research in organic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, and related fields at Cambridge University. To facilitate an exchange between the two institutions, Smith made a similar bequest to Cambridge University so that its Ph.D. graduates can come to Harvard reciprocally.

Smith was born in Plymouth, England, and received his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Cambridge University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University. As a university lecturer in organic chemistry at Manchester University, he devised new approaches to the synthesis of novel steroids, which he patented. Smith subsequently moved in 1961 to the United States, where he worked in conjunction with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in suburban Philadelphia. His collaboration with Wyeth led to the creation of the first synthetic birth control pill, as well as other important pharmaceuticals for hormone therapy treatments.

On retirement, Smith began a second career as a philanthropist, concentrating his support on academic research in chemistry and other sciences. One of Smith’s particular interests was to enable students at Cambridge to attend both pre- and postdoctoral programs in the sciences at Harvard. Harvard students were given the same opportunity to attend Cambridge.

Smith died on Dec. 20, 2001, at the age of 76. His wife, Sheila, predeceased him. He is survived by his son, Marcus; daughter-in-law, Jennifer; and three grandchildren, Henry, Christian, and Hope, all of San Francisco.