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A boost for research, and a fitting tribute to two strong women

Medicine@Yale, 2013 - November


Investing in the future of women’s health research, a couple honors their mothers

Norma Weinberg Spungen and the late Joan Lebson Bildner knew each other as loving in-laws: Spungen’s daughter Elisa and Bildner’s son Robert, both Yale College graduates, married in 1982 and raised a family together. But the two women had more in common than family. Elisa Spungen Bildner describes both as “extremely strong leaders and matriarchs.”

Now, the two women have something else in common: their children have chosen to honor them by providing a significant gift to endow a professorship at the School of Medicine in their names. The Bildners’ gift, complementing funds donated by an anonymous foundation and others, establishes the Norma Weinberg Spungen and Joan Lebson Bildner Professorship. The endowed chair is intended to support a ladder faculty member whose work is devoted to advancing women’s health and studying gender differences in health and disease as director of Women’s Health Research at Yale (WHRY).

That the professorship honors two strong women is fitting: since its establishment in 1998, WHRY has worked steadfastly to remedy what its founding director, Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., sees as one of the largest shortcomings in medical research: “For many years, scientists in almost every area of human disease conducted their research on populations that were largely male,” Mazure says. One study in the 1970s, for example, examined the role of estrogen in reducing risks for coronary heart disease: the sample included 8,431 men, but no women. Even after 1993, when the National Institutes of Health began requiring investigators to include women, researchers often have not analyzed results by gender. “The fact is that women and men have different risk factors for disease,” Mazure says. “Responses to a given treatment can vary by gender, and prevention strategies often need to be gender-specific.”

The Bildners’ gift affirms WHRY’s 15-year campaign to change a dominant paradigm in health research. Established to investigate previously unstudied areas of women’s health, today the initiative supports pilot studies, original research, training of women’s health researchers, and outreach to practitioners and the public.

“Dr. Mazure has made this program a catalyst for meaningful research and better health care, advancing medicine for women and men alike,” says Robert Bildner.

A true “Yale family,” the Bildners have a long history of service to the University. Elisa Spungen Bildner, a 1975 graduate of Yale College and a graduate of Columbia Law School, is a longtime WHRY board member. Robert Bildner, a 1972 graduate of Yale College and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is a member of the University Council, an advisory body to the University’s president. The parents of three Yale College alumni, Elana ’06, Ari ’09, and Eli ’10, and current student Rafi ’16, the Bildners have served on numerous University committees. Among other roles, they are trustees and founders of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, where they have endowed travel grants and fellowships.

Through their efforts, the Bildners carry on the generosity of spirit and mindfulness of community that has characterized their mothers’ lives. A firm and forceful believer in the importance of education and scholarship, Norma Spungen received postgraduate degrees in both education and history and taught grade school for a number of years in her native Chicago. Later, she became a lecturer on history, and until her retirement headed the Chicago Jewish Archives, a center for research and scholarship. “She values the kind of scholarship that a chair exemplifies,” says Elisa Spungen Bildner, herself a former journalism and law professor.

Joan Lebson Bildner, Robert Bildner says, “was regarded as a visionary and a leader who got things done.” A resident of Jupiter, Fla., she was a devoted philanthropist who worked to advance the missions and resources of numerous health-related and cultural organizations, supporting both Jewish and civic causes. Among these is the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University, which she co-founded with her husband, Allen. “She made things happen, in the same way that Carolyn Mazure makes things happen at WHRY,” says Robert Bildner.

Says Elisa, “We could think of no better way to honor our mothers.”

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