By Peter Wortsman
Judith P. Sulzberger’49, a visionary physician-philanthropist who applied her medical knowledge to advance research at P&S and elsewhere, died of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 21, 2011. She was 87. Dr. Sulzberger was best known at P&S as the driving force behind the Columbia Genome Center that bears her name.
A former member of the Board of Directors of the New York Times, the newspaper in which her family holds a majority interest, Dr. Sulzberger served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Pasteur Foundation (the New York-based branch of the Institut Pasteur in Paris). At Columbia, to which she was committed heart and soul, she served on the CUMC Board of Visitors, the P&S Alumni Steering Committee, and the Health Sciences Advisory Council.
Medicine captured her imagination early on as a young child, when she battled scarlet fever, a life-threatening illness. She sharpened her fascination for science in an accelerated three-year program at Smith College, earning her B.A. while transitioning to P&S in her fourth year. Her medical and P&S lineage, in fact, reached back to her great-great grandfather, Dr. Daniel Levi Maduro Peixotto, Class of 1819, one of the foremost New York physicians of his day.
Putting her career on a hiatus to raise a family, she returned to medicine in 1957 as a member of the Department of Pathology at Cornell. In subsequent years she maintained affiliations with several hospitals and clinics in New York and Stamford, Conn., then pursued a private internal medicine practice in East Hampton. For a time she also wrote a medical column for the East Hampton Star and eventually brought her writing talents to the P&S Journal, for which she worked as a roving reporter and writer-in-residence. Her column, “P&S Revisited,” was a must-read, communicating the excitement of cutting edge bench work and clinical scientific advances.
It was at P&S that her attention turned to genetics, a subject that truly captured her imagination and would later inspire a novel, “Younger,” published in 2003. Dr. Sulzberger also wrote and published occasional verse. At P&S she authored the first printed description and produced the text of a video on genetics to translate the manifold mysteries of the then nascent project for a general, albeit medically trained, public. And when genome studies at Columbia mushroomed into something more than the maverick work of a few isolated labs, Dr. Sulzberger provided the guidance, the seed money, and ongoing support for what would become the Judith P. Sulzberger’49 Columbia Genome Center, where she also pitched in to work on special projects. One such project was a study of the genetic code of the mosquito that carries malaria conducted jointly by the center and the Pasteur Institute.
Her generosity to P&S included the endowment of the Isidore S. Edelman Professorship in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, named for the center’s founding director and former chair of biochemistry, and significant support for celiac disease research, bioterrorism research, a genomic autism study, and the Campaign for Diversity, among other areas.
A member of the P&S Alumni Association Council and for some years chair of the Class of 1949, Dr. Sulzberger also was a major donor to scholarships. She was one of the principal sponsors of the Nolting Student Loan Fund, named in honor of Dr. Anke Nolting, associate dean of alumni relations and development. For many years she hosted visiting alumni at her home in Lubec, Maine, and mentored medical students in conjunction with the Home Away from Home Program.
Her philanthropy was university-wide, extending to the Columbia Initiative in Systems Biology, the Mailman School of Public Health, Barnard College, and the School of Journalism.
Among many encomia earned in the course of her career, Dr. Sulzberger received the 2001 Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to P&S and its Alumni Association and the 2002 Columbia University Alumni Federation Gold Medal for Distinguished Service. In 2005 she was named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her work with the Pasteur Foundation.
Dr. Sulzberger is survived by her husband, Budd Levinson, two sons by an earlier marriage, a stepdaughter, two stepsons, four grandchildren, and several step-grandchildren.