Sanford-Burnham’s co-founder turns 98

By Molly Townsend
May 1, 2013

Sanford-Burnham’s co-founder Lillian Fishman celebrated her 98th birthday this past weekend. In an interview conducted by Patty Fuller for U-T San Diego, Mrs. Fishman recounts the Institute’s beginnings in 1976 as the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, and explains the development of San Diego’s scientific communities over the past four decades.

Mrs. Fishman and her late husband, Dr. William Fishman, moved to San Diego in 1976 to establish a research organization with a unique mission: “Our big idea was to create an independent medical research institute dedicated to the emerging field of oncodevelopmental biology. We wanted to hire bright young scientists and give them the freedom to do their research, unencumbered by administrative bureaucracy and departmental politics,” she said. With a meager budget, the Foundation’s scientists took a joint-effort approach to medical research challenges, and worked collaboratively to advance discoveries effectively, a means that the Institute prides itself on today.

One of the scientists who has worked closely with the Fishmans is Dr. José Luis Millán, professor in our Sanford Children’s Health Research Center. “Throughout the 37 years that I have known Lil, I have always admired her ability to focus on the good in people, never lingering on the bad, and to praise successes, small as they might be. I’ve often invited Lil to have lunch with my lab members and they all admired her young spirit and energy and the can-do attitude that very likely was instrumental in enabling Bill and Lil to found this Institution,” he reflects on the decades the two have been close partners.

Sanford-Burnham’s commitment to the pursuit of improving human health can be attributed to the founding principles the Fishmans had originally established for the Institute. Mrs. Fishman explains, “when we started the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation in our retirement years, we lived it, we ate it, and we slept it. It was a part of us. We were determined to find solutions that would help cure human diseases. I believe the Institute is still true to its core mission. We are trying to uncover new knowledge about being human beings and the mystery of life itself.” This firm dedication to seeking cures is what makes breakthrough discoveries possible at Sanford-Burnham. Mrs. Fishman’s reflections of the Institute’s past offer a valuable perspective of the Institute’s mission to meet the challenges of accelerating advancements in medical research.

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