Campus & Community

$30 million endowment offers new approach

7 min read

Weatherheads invest in science and technology to transform future

When Albert J. Weatherhead III ’50 and Celia Weatherhead decided to give $30 million to create The Weatherhead Endowment for Collaborative Science and Technology, the couple agreed that the choice offered a unique opportunity to influence the future.

That’s because this endeavor is not quite like anything Harvard has done before. This Weatherhead endowment will function like a venture capital fund, enabling the University to seed promising interdisciplinary science and technology projects as they emerge. The Weatherheads and President Lawrence H. Summers view their partnership as key to realizing Summers’ vision of science and technology as fostering bold new approaches to age-old questions.

“Harvard scientists and engineers are making exciting discoveries and working on problems ranging from preventing infectious diseases to discovering the origins of life to examining materials on a microscopic scale,” Summers says. “We are continually developing new and innovative ideas across the University, and the generosity of the Weatherheads will enable Harvard to support our scientists with substantial resources.”

Provost Steven E. Hyman echoes Summers’ remarks. “This is an incredibly exciting time in the sciences, in part because of what new technologies are allowing us to do. The Weatherhead endowment will jump-start many promising initiatives at Harvard.”

Among the innovative endeavors that may be supported by the Weatherhead endowment is nanoscience, a field in which researchers can now use powerful tools to examine, manipulate, and fabricate materials at a microscopic scale; design molecules and drugs with specific functionality; and simulate the behavior of complex materials. Harvard’s Center for Imaging and Mesoscale Structures (CIMS) serves as the home for much of the University’s advanced work in the nanotechnology area.

Neuroscience is another exciting area that may benefit from the Weatherheads’ new endowment. The study of neuroscience at Harvard is focused on basic research that will shed light on the fundamental question: What makes us human? Harvard neuroscientists are concerned not only with finding cures for Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia. They intend to discover the circuits and mechanisms that underlie our individual thoughts and emotions. Ultimately, basic research in neuroscience will provide a rational approach to drug discovery and treatment for disease.

Al Weatherhead likens this endowment to a formative experience he had as a teenager: “There was a trestle bridge that was 40 or 50 feet over a gorge of roaring water. As a kid, I would hesitatingly go out on this bridge with chills up my spine, fearing the thrilling, suspenseful free fall. I wondered, ‘Will I ever hit the water?’ I told Larry Summers, ‘We’re jumping off this new bridge together. We don’t know where this jump will lead, but we know this is the greatest leap of faith and forward thinking that we will make as partners for Harvard’s future.”

The Weatherheads have always been eager for a challenge, though. In the late 1990s, Celia encouraged her husband to “lift the foundation’s sights and be more creative” by tackling something bigger than the four professorships they had established over the years at the Kennedy School of Government, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Business School. The result was a $21 million gift for the Center for International Affairs (CFIA). The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs helps bring together scholars and students from different disciplines and different countries to focus on pressing international issues.

In the words of Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) William C. Kirby, “The Weatherheads have done so much for Harvard in the past, including their support of one of our pre-eminent centers for international studies, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Now, they are firmly positioning the University for scientific leadership in the future.”

“People come to Harvard to have a learning experience in which they truly learn to think,” Al Weatherhead says. “It’s the excitement, the challenge, the thrill, the brainpower it takes to engage enthusiastically with other people.”

Sitting around a table on a recent visit to Harvard, Al and Celia Weatherhead describe why this gift gets them so excited. Celia knits a sweater for her business, Kozy Kashmir, which sells specialty items for dogs, interjecting here and there to clarify some of Al’s comments. She smiles as he recounts the familiar story of how he fell in love with Harvard at age 15 during his father’s 25th reunion. “I looked out in the Yard and saw the people glowing with great pride and love for one another, and I said, ‘This is the only place I am going to go.’”

After serving three years in the service, Al Weatherhead came to Harvard in 1946 and graduated from the College four years later. He then attended Harvard Business School and worked in publicly held companies. In 1956, he joined the Cleveland-based Weatherhead Co., the firm founded by his father in 1919. The company originally made parts for the fledgling auto industry, expanded into other areas, and was a major producer of military supplies during World War II.

Al Weatherhead has been president of the Weatherhead Foundation since 1987. A family foundation, it concentrates on endowments for higher education. Since its establishment more than 50 years ago, it has supported, besides Harvard, Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University, the University of Texas, Houston, and Tulane University, which is Celia Weatherhead’s alma mater.

When Al Weatherhead is not running his plastic cap and closure company or interacting with one of the many institutions he supports, he is busy writing. His memoir, “Let the Cowboy Dance,” is due to be published next spring. The book takes the reader on a journey through the author’s life, from his days as a working cowboy before college, to his experiences as an undergraduate at Harvard and his successes in business. The theme of the book is the power and wisdom of adversity best expressed in the French proverb “To suffer passes away, but to have suffered never passes.”

Currently, a Harvard task force on science and technology is evaluating more than a dozen proposals submitted by faculty from across the University. The proposals outline plans for exciting new research collaborations and will likely be contenders for seed funding from The Weatherhead Endowment for Collaborative Science and Technology.

Harvard has long been committed to advancing science and technology, especially now that a revolution is under way in the life sciences. Rapid technological advances, the sequencing of the human genome, and increased activity in basic research present a unique time to better understand life processes as well as to discover new ways to prevent and cure disease. Future medical advances depend on interdisciplinary collaborations among eminent scientists in fields such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science – areas in which Harvard enjoys significant strength.

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is well known for its excellence in many of these fields. The Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which forms a part of the FAS, is pioneering new approaches to training “renaissance engineers” – students who receive a strong grounding in science and technology as part of their solid liberal arts education. Harvard Medical School is a world leader in medical training and basic research, while 18 Harvard hospitals bring unparalleled expertise to translating research from the lab bench to the bedside. The Harvard School of Public Health, which offered the nation’s first graduate training program in the field, has made many landmark contributions, including the development of the cardiac defibrillator, and research that led to the development of polio vaccines.

Harvard also has years of experience in funding science and technology through endowments. Gordon McKay, an inventor, was one of the University’s first philanthropists. In the early 1900s, he gave a then-unprecedented sum of money to support applied science at the Lawrence Scientific School, now the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Today, McKay’s legacy has grown to support 42 professorships.

When asked what kind of legacy the Weatherheads want to leave, Celia Weatherhead explains that she and Al love to give, treating philanthropy as their “substitute child.”

“We want people to know we loved each other and that we were plain, honest, straightforward people who did our best to help mankind. We feel this is payback for our own happiness,” she says.