Whitehead creates first endowed chair

September 26, 2006

Tags: Fink LabAwards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Under a $4.0 million bequest from the estate of Margaret Sokol, Whitehead Institute is establishing its first endowed chair, the Margaret and Herman Sokol Chair in Biomedical Research.

“Margaret and Herman Sokol were enormously supportive of Whitehead from the very first days,” says Whitehead Director David Page. “This extraordinarily generous gift will allow further progress in the basic research that was so important to them.”

“I am deeply honored to be the first holder of the Sokol chair,” says Gerald R. Fink, a Whitehead Founding Member and professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Margaret Sokol represents an important part of our heritage: the many supporters who follow our progress and share the excitement of Whitehead scientists as they attack research problems.”

A former Director of Whitehead, Fink developed baker's yeast as a model for studying the fundamental biology of all organisms. His creative use of genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology has yielded seminal discoveries in gene regulation and infectious disease.

Margaret Sokol, who passed away last spring at age 90, was the wife of the late Dr. Herman Sokol, former president and chief executive officer of Bristol-Myers. Herman Sokol served on the Whitehead Board of Directors from 1981 until his death of cancer at age 68 in 1985.

Margaret Sokol completed her husband’s term on the Board from 1985 to 1987. In 1991, she established the Margaret and Herman Sokol Postdoctoral Awards in Biomedical Research to promote and enhance cancer-related research at Whitehead. More than 20 Whitehead postdoctoral scientists have benefited from Mrs. Sokol’s philanthropy.

A research chemist and business executive, Herman Sokol along with several associates discovered the antibiotic tetracycline in the early 1950s, and he developed the basic processes for manufacturing it that are still in use worldwide. Dr. Sokol joined Bristol-Myers in 1962 and organized the company’s international pharmaceutical program. He was elected a director of the company in 1973, acting as chairman of its pharmaceutical, health care and international divisions. In 1976, he was named president of Bristol-Myers, a position he held until retiring in 1981. Previously, he had served on the board of Technicon, the medical instrumentation supplier run by Whitehead founder Edwin C. “Jack” Whitehead.

“Herman was always characteristically modest about his contributions to the very early field of antibiotics, his rise through the ranks to become head of Bristol-Myers, and his philanthropy,” recalls John Whitehead, a member of the Whitehead Board of Directors. “He was a very practical, smart, commonsense and no-nonsense kind of guy, but he always had time to take a personal interest in people.”

Many of Whitehead Institute’s researchers, alumni and friends have fond memories of Margaret Sokol.

“I was impressed with her being a very down-to-earth person, amiable and straightforward, and with a lot of spark and a sharp sense of humor,” says Ittai Ben-Porath, a postdoctoral researcher and former Sokol Scholar. “She was a little person with great vigor and life in her eyes; very inquisitive, kind, compassionate and witty,” adds Andreas Herrlich, another former Sokol Scholar and a postdoctoral fellow.

“Margaret Sokol was very supportive of what we did, and excited to meet young people,” says Whitehead Founding Member Robert Weinberg. “She had the vitality of a woman 15 years younger.”

"She and her husband had a few institutions which they cared about deeply, including Whitehead," comments Susan Whitehead, Vice Chair of the Institute's Board of Directors. "She was a woman who was absolutely not sentimental, but those sets of relationships with organizations were very important to her. Margaret was just an incredible character, and I grew to be extremely fond of her. She was very sharp-witted, insightful and opinionated, and she didn't suffer fools at all. She was a very, very fine human being, and really her own person."

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