According to family lore, Ralph Falk, M.D., a physician and surgeon who practiced in Boise, Idaho in the early to mid-20th century, was nothing if not inventive. His daughter-in-law, Suzanne McDonough, recalls Falk telling her of an emergency operation he performed during the 1920s at a home in a remote mountainous area where he and a friend had gone fishing. “They had to hang a mirror over the patient’s kitchen table in order to reflect Dr. Falk’s automobile lights so he could see well enough to operate,” says McDonough.
Falk’s commitment to improving patients’ lives through innovation is sustained in the Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust, established in 1991 with $50 million from the estate of Falk’s late wife, Marian Citron Falk of Chicago.
At the School of Medicine, the trust has contributed over $2 million toward research on repairing spinal cord injuries and on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease by Stephen M. Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology and co-director of the Program for Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair.
Strittmatter is well known for his work on NogoReceptor, a versatile protein that blocks recovery after spinal cord injury, but also clears the damaging amyloid buildup seen in Alzheimer’s disease. In January of this year, Strittmatter’s group published a report demonstrating that ibuprofen AIDS recovery from spinal cord trauma by protecting tissue, stimulating the sprouting of axons, and promoting regeneration of cells. Most recently, Strittmatter and colleagues have shown that prion protein, which in a misshapen form plays a role in mad cow disease, also contributes, in its normal form, to Alzheimer’s disease (see related story).
“Support from the Falk Trust has been key in our developing new therapies for spinal cord injury,” says Strittmatter. “It has also been essential for our exploration of the links between trauma, degeneration, and regeneration, revealing new pathways in Alzheimer’s disease.”
In the early 1930s, frustrated by labor-intensive and unsafe methods of providing much-needed fluids to his patients during and after surgery, Ralph Falk resolved to find a better way. Along with his brother, Harry, Falk struck a deal to form a business with Donald E. Baxter, M.D., a California entrepreneur who had begun to develop a viable system for intravenous delivery of solutions after seeing many people die from cholera-induced fluid loss as a medical missionary in China. The company was incorporated as Baxter Laboratories in 1931.
Three years later, Falk purchased Donald Baxter’s interest in the company, which went on to manufacture blood transfusion products that were extensively used during World War II and to develop some of the earliest equipment for kidney dialysis. By the time of Falk’s death in 1960, Baxter Laboratories was one of the world’s largest medical supply companies, with annual sales of over $37 million.
The assets of the Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust have grown to about $170 million, says Catherine Ryan, a Chicago-based senior vice president at Bank of America, which serves as sole trustee. With a broad mission to support research on diseases with no known cure, the trust has backed projects ranging from biomedical engineering to cancer research to neuroscience, with renewable three-year grants.
Melanie Vere Nicoll, granddaughter of Ralph and Marian Falk and a member of the Yale College Class of 1983, works closely with Ryan to select proposals that receive the trust’s support. Though Ralph Falk died before she was born, Vere Nicoll believes that the trust is an apt expression of his insatiably curious mind and generous spirit. Ryan, who remembers Marian Falk as “a very interesting lady, a grande dame of Chicago,” says that the trust will continue to implement its present strategy—awarding grants for the best proposals from top institutions without imposing a narrow scientific or disease-based focus—because the track record of Falk-supported work has been a good one. “We haven’t cured anything yet,” says Ryan, “but there’s no doubt that we’ve helped a lot of people.”