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Madlyn Abramson: Penn Alumna, Trustee, Benefactor

Madlyn Abramson, founding donor of the Abramson Cancer CenterWe regret to share the sad news of the passing of Madlyn Abramson (Ed’57, GEd’60), one of the most admired champions of public causes – especially cancer care and research – in the Philadelphia area. She died on April 15, 2020.

Madlyn was the quintessential philanthropist. Much of her generosity, and that of her husband, Leonard Abramson, founder and former chief executive of U.S. Healthcare, the health management organization, was directed to the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine, and they were benefactors to many other institutions in the region and beyond. 

Together with her husband, Madlyn gave more than $140 million to what, with their visionary support, grew to become the Abramson Cancer Center and propelled Penn to national eminence in cancer care, clinical trials, and cancer immunotherapy. Always leading the way in support of patients, the Abramsons were the first to step up at the onset of the current global health crisis, contributing $1 million in support of COVID-19 related research performed at the Abramson Cancer Center.

“The reputation we enjoy today as one of the nation’s preeminent cancer centers has been built on the strong foundation that Madlyn laid,” said Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, director of the Abramson Cancer Center. “The exciting progress we’ve made in pursuit of curing cancer unites us every day to do more for our patients here in the Abramson Cancer Center and across the world, and we have Madlyn, together with her husband Leonard, to thank for the vision that set us on this path.”

“Never could I be more proud that the Abramson Cancer Center bears the name of Madlyn, who has done so much to bring healing, compassion, and hope to people facing cancer. Her philanthropy has simply been transformational in the care of patients with cancer. We will all miss her dearly,” shared John H. Glick, MD, former director of the Abramson Cancer Center from 1985-2006.

In December 1997, the Abramson Family Foundation made a gift of $100 million to the University’s Cancer Center, establishing the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute. It was the largest single contribution for research to a federally designated comprehensive cancer center. At the time, it was also the second-largest gift ever made to Penn. 

The Abramsons’ $100 million gift was widely covered by the press. The funds would not be used for “bricks and mortar,” but to attract top scientists in the field and free them to do research full time. As Madlyn said at the event announcing the gift, “Leonard and I are committed to supporting ground-breaking research that has the potential to reduce or eliminate the physical and psychological impact of cancer on patients and their families.”

Her public commitment would prove prescient: Among the first recruits made possible by their gift was Carl June, MD, the immunotherapy pioneer responsible for the development of what became the first personalized cellular therapy for cancer. At a celebration event attended by hundreds of faculty and staff to celebrate the Food and Drug Administration’s historic approval of the therapy in August 2017, Madlyn and Leonard stood by proudly with Dr. June, his team of physicians and scientists, and Penn leadership.

At the 1997 gift announcement event, Madlyn put the gift into a personal context: “As a cancer survivor for 12 years, I understand the importance of patient-centered approaches in research and clinical activities.” In the years since, the Abramson Cancer Center has established national models for these efforts, on-boarding a diverse team of patient-service coordinators, cancer nutritionists, and psychosocial counselors and social workers, and developing robust survivorship programs to support patients in living their healthiest and best lives following treatment. 

On the five-year anniversary of their gift, the cancer center was renamed the Abramson Cancer Center. Then, in June 2010, President Amy Gutmann announced “an extraordinary $25.5 million gift” from the Abramsons. On this occasion, the Abramsons received the inaugural Dean’s Medal, which honors individuals for extraordinary service to Penn Medicine. 

In addition, Madlyn Abramson served as the honorary chair of the Abramson Cancer Center Leadership Council, a group of donors, volunteers, and advocates who support the Center’s mission. She joined forces with one of her daughters, Nancy Abramson Wolfson, to create Philly Fights Cancer, which grew since 2015 to become Philadelphia’s preeminent fundraising event, headlined by international talents including Lionel Richie, Maroon 5, and Jerry Seinfeld. To date, the organization has raised more than $39 million, with proceeds benefitting essential clinical trials that are powering the next generation of cancer cures.

Madlyn’s impulse to help, to share, and to inspire is one she learned from an early age, in part inspired by her father, Maurice Kornberg, and his devotion to his patients. A first-generation American, Kornberg put himself through Temple University’s dental school. After setting up his practices, he also volunteered to run a dental clinic for the less fortunate, based at South Philadelphia’s old Mount Sinai Hospital. As Madlyn recalled for the Jewish Exponent in 2013, “It was very important to my father to do something that was helping and healing.” She also credited her father’s influence for her decision to attend Penn, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, both in education. Her next step was to become a public-school teacher and reading specialist in the Upper Darby School District and then the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit staff. 

Continuing her support of education, years later, Madlyn returned to Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) to serve on its Board of Overseers.  Her philanthropy provided scholarship support for GSE students preparing to transform education, and lead locally, nationally, and globally. In addition, at the time of her death, Madlyn Abramson was an emeritus trustee of the University. 

In addition to her husband, Leonard, Madlyn is survived by her three daughters, Marcy Abramson Shoemaker, Nancy Abramson Wolfson, and Judith Abramson Felgoise, and her many grandchildren.