Lives of the fellows

Isaac (Sir) Wolfson

b.17 September 1897 d.20 June 1991
1st Bt(1962) Hon FRCP Hon FRCS FRS(1963)

The death of Sir Isaac Wolfson brought to an end formally one of the most remarkable personal histories of modern Britain. Much has been written of Sir Isaac’s humble beginnings - one of 13 children of a Russian immigrant, a cabinet maker, to Glasgow; he would later say ‘A Jewish boy from the Gorbals’ - and of his extraordinary success first in building up GUS (Great Universal Stores) to be one of the largest mail order businesses outside the USA, and then extending into the furniture trade, footwear, clothing, finance and property. Similar stories of rapid achievement and accumulation of wealth by new immigrant families are not unknown in Britian and the USA but what distinguished Sir Isaac from almost all the others is how he allocated his money. From the start he adopted a Schweizer-like philosophy of ‘Giving and receiving’; some years ago he said ‘No man should keep more than £100,000, the rest should go to charity.’ This philosophy inspired him and his family to establish the Wolfson Foundation in 1955 for the advancement of health, education and youth activities.

In the past 35 years the philanthropy of the Foundation has been prodigious. By 1980 it had donated more than £40 million; by now it exceeds £125 million. Today, under the chairmanship of his equally philanthropic son, Lord Wolfson, it makes grants of £12-15 million per annum. There can be few academic units that have not benefited from this generosity through endowments for halls of residence, research institutes and laboratories, professorships, medical work, libraries, museums and schools.

In 1966 the Foundation endowed the buildings and equipment to found Wolfson College, Oxford, with a matching grant from the Ford Foundation - Sir Isaac himself was elected Founder Fellow. In 1972 a similar grant was made for Wolfson College in Cambridge.

A main focus of the Wolfson Foundation has been medicine. In the past ten years, major initiatives have been funded for the care of the blind, the disabled, for hospices and hospitals, for preventive medicine, medical education and research.

The Royal College of Physicians has been a primary recipient. In 1959 the Foundation made a grant of £450,000 towards the cost of the new building in Regent’s Park and, since then, has supported the research unit led first by Sir Cyril Clarke, president of the College 1972-77, and latterly by Anthony Hopkins. Sir Isaac was elected an honorary Fellow of the College in 1959 and was proud that he was only the second person to receive this accolade; the first being HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in 1952.

No commentary on Sir Isaac would be complete without mention of his personality. Physically on the small side, he was larger than life as a person - warm, generous, kind, humorous, with a gift for making people relax and laugh. He was deeply religious but his charitable philosophy was based on a wider appreciation of the need to help those less fortunate than himself. He will be remembered as one of the great philanthropists of the 20th century. We, in medicine, have particular cause to be grateful.

He died in Israel. His wife Edith née Specterman died in 1981. His only son Leonard (Lord Wolfson) survived him.

Sir Raymond Hoffenberg

[The Times, 21 June 1991;The Independent, 22 June 1991;The Guardian, 21/22 June 1991;The Daily Telegraph, 21 June 1991;Investors Chronicle 2 Mar 1962; The Sunday Times, 30 Apr 1961; Univ.of Lond.Gaz., Dec 1959,pp.l53-4]

(Volume IX, page 601)

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