Endowments are meant to provide a foundation that can sustain work over time, but the size and restrictiveness of the investment matters enormously. In the case of these six cancer research centers, a $540 million endowment is meant to help them pursue work that is speculative and risky, unencumbered by the profit requirements of “the market” or the conservatism and restrictions of government funding.

By the time Daniel K. Ludwig, an American businessman once known as one of the richest men in the world, died at the ripe old age of 95 in 1992, he had given away most of his foreign assets to the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Zurich, which has a current endowment of $1.2 billion. Before his death, Mr. Ludwig created the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Fund for Cancer Research to fund U.S. cancer research with his U.S.-based assets, known as the Ludwig Centers. These, together with a collection of scientists scattered around the world, comprise what is known as Ludwig Cancer Research. Ludwig’s global contribution to advancing cancer research is now $2.5 billion.

On Monday, it was announced that Ludwig Cancer Research has completed a final disbursement to the Ludwig Centers at six prestigious research institutions. The total of the gift was $540 million, split evenly among the six Centers. Added to previous gifts, it brought the total to $900 million—or $150 million for each institution.

Why should this undertaking be international? The rare vision and ability needed in the battle against cancer are not limited by frontiers, and the scientists who possess these gifts must be sought wherever they are to be found. Nor does cancer reveal itself in the same guise in every nation, but strikes different populations in different forms. Yet despite the growing necessity for concerted worldwide effort, I find no agency, which has both the truly international scope and the substantial resources, which I deem essential for a comprehensive attack on human cancer.

In my judgment the ultimate conquest of this frightful disease is not yet in sight, and the same view is held by most informed physicians and scientists in bio-medical research. In contrast to those who would yield to undue optimism, and who hope for too much from present programs. I am persuaded that eventual mastery of cancer will come only from intense and unremitting scientific exploration over many decades. This should not be hindered by the changing policies of governments and the vagaries of public interest. Accordingly it is my intention that the Institute shall be so structured as to ensure secure and continuing support for the attainment of its aims. The elimination of cancer will surely rank as one of man’s greatest and uncontroversial achievements. That day may be long delayed. How long we cannot tell. But I do not doubt that it will surely come.

D.K. Ludwig
December 17, 1974

Even in the realm of mega-grants, these endowments, taken together, are on the larger side, and we were intrigued. What were the conditions of the grants and the thinking behind them? Were the institutions required to collaborate? Did each have a specialization?

First, the basics: The institutions where Ludwig Centers are located in the United States are Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. Each was founded in 2006 with an early investment, and each of the Ludwig Centers has indeed chosen a specialized focus for their research, having gathered a team and collaborators, but there are also plenty of opportunities to collaborate cross-institutionally.

What we found beyond that was both highly unusual and impressively simple. Each of the Centers was given an equal amount of the money available as an endowment in perpetuity, leaving no grant money in the original trust. The gifts were given on the basis of the quality of the institutions that Ludwig himself designated and the scientists working there; that is where any control apparently ended, with the exception that the funding must be used exclusively for the Ludwig Centers and for cancer research.

The endowment provides each Center with between $4 million and $5 million a year in operating income, and this money is unrestricted. This provides an environment for cancer research that is guided only by the intention to offer effective treatment for cancer patients. As Ludwig desired, researchers at Ludwig Centers do not worry about having this simple logic warped by a profit motive or by government priorities.


Size, Permanence, and Freedom

That freedom in itself doubles the value of the money, but there is also the question of the “size and permanence” that George Demetri of the Harvard Center, which has a focus on resistance to therapy, refers to in an interview with Harvard Magazine. This is, he says, what allows the center to take on “high risk and reward” strategies.


Freeing the Research from the Distractions of “Marketplace”

In an interview with NPQ, Irving Weissman at Stanford discussed these kinds of distractions and barriers as they have appeared in his