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In memoriam: Joel Smilow, Yale College ’54

Medicine@Yale, 2022 - May June
by Isabella Backman

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Cancer hospital and much else at Yale came from his generosity

Yale School of Medicine remembers Joel Smilow, YC ’54, who died October 3 at Yale New Haven Hospital. He was one of the university’s greatest benefactors, and his memory continues to live on through his namesake Smilow Cancer Hospital, which he made possible through a generous philanthropic gift in 2007.

“Smilow used to get letters from patients all the time whose lives were saved at Yale by cancer doctors,” says Robert J. Alpern, MD, Ensign Professor of Medicine (Nephrology) and professor of cellular and mo- lecular physiology, who was dean of the medical school at the time of Smilow’s donation. “I can’t imagine where Yale New Haven Hospital would be today without the presence of Smilow Hospital.”

Yale College’s Class of 1954 has been one of the most generous classes in giving to Yale, and Smilow was a leader in this effort. After graduation, he would build his personal fortune as CEO of Playtex, and, says Alpern, he wanted to give away most of his wealth while he was alive so he could see the result of his good works. His earlier gifts supported the renovation of the Smilow Field Center, the appointment of four varsity head coach and two varsity associate head coach positions, and the Yale Bowl renovation project.

Next, Smilow turned his attention toward giving to health care initiatives, including New York University’s translational medical research center. He was then approached by Inge Reichenbach, who at the time was Yale’s vice president for development, about supporting a cancer hospital. At first, Smilow declined.

“He told me it was great to meet with me, but Yale was too late, and that he had already fulfilled his health care giving. Smilow was someone who didn’t trust institutional bureaucracy,” Alpern laughs. “He was afraid he would donate the money and not see its impact for decades.”

What finally convinced Smilow to donate was a hole in the ground.

“He drove by and saw that we were already building the cancer hospital,” says Alpern. “Once he saw that we had already started construction, it convinced him that it would be built during his lifetime.”

While he knew at the time he was building a hospital, says Alpern, Smilow didn’t realize that his name would soon be associated with the creation of a center that provided state-of-the-art cancer care. It made Smilow a household name in Connecticut. He had long been a familiar figure at Yale, but now even his neighbors recognized him as the Smilow of Smilow Cancer Hospital.

“Smilow told me he was shocked,” says Alpern. “I believe he felt that this was the most impactful gift of his life.”

Today, the 14-story, 500,000- square-foot hospital is one of the world’s leading cancer centers. Yale’s is one of only 51 comprehensive cancer centers designated by the Na- tional Cancer Institute (NCI) in the country. The building contains 168 private inpatient rooms, outpatient multidisciplinary treatment centers, 12 expanded operating rooms, infusion suites, diagnostic imaging services, a floor for children with cancer, a specialized women’s cancer center, and diagnostic and therapeutic radiology services for children and adults. Its top three floors, which have negative pressure ventilation systems for specialized cancer care, were used to treat COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic in 2020. The building’s construction cost an estimated $467 million.

“During my time as dean, the opening of Smilow Cancer Hospital was the most transformational event in our clinical practice,” says Alpern. “I feel great confidence in telling any patient in Connecticut that they can get top-quality care here.”

After the construction of the hospital, Smilow would remain a presence. He became a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council and developed a close relationship with the CEO of the Yale New Haven Health System.

“He was down to earth and just a good person,” says Alpern. “It was a real pleasure to know him.”