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David Swensen’s Legacy at Yale School of Medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2022 Issue 169 Rising Up
by Adrian Bonenberger

Contents

Well known for his nationally significant work with Yale University’s endowment, David F. Swensen made an impact on Yale School of Medicine. He received treatment at Smilow Cancer Hospital.

David F. Swensen, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer for 36 years, died on May 5, 2021. He was a patient at Smilow Cancer Hospital for nearly nine years, following an incidental diagnosis of metastatic renal cell carcinoma in July of 2012. During Dr. Swensen’s tenure at Yale, the Endowment grew from $1b to $42b. The Yale Endowment has a major impact on the overall budget of the School of Medicine, as donations are invested in the Endowment and benefit from the impressive rate of return. The growth of the Endowment under Swensen’s stewardship generated opportunities to increase both the number and size of endowed faculty chairs at the School of Medicine. Flexible funds have also resulted in the School’s ability to recruit and retain world-class physician scientists and basic scientists, placing Yale School of Medicine among the top ten medical schools for research in the country.

Of equal importance, Yale School of Medicine’s generous tuition aid policy, with an annual unit loan ceiling of $15,000 established in 2020, is similarly supported by donations invested in the Endowment. This relatively low unit loan ceiling has allowed the School to continue to attract top medical students while enabling future generations of students to graduate with as little debt as possible.

Beyond his spectacular work with the Endowment, Swensen was beloved throughout Yale, including within the Yale medical community. He was an enthusiastic supporter of multiple cancer research funds at Yale. He also supported the School of Nursing and established the Swensen-McMahon Scholarship Fund. Swensen’s legacy as an investor, philanthropist, teacher, and friend will be felt for decades. Below is an excerpt from remarks delivered by his oncologist, Harriet Kluger, MD, Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Medicine (Oncology) and of Dermatology, at the celebration of Swensen’s life on April 10, 2022.

Good afternoon,

It was my distinct honor to care for David during the course of his illness. When we first diagnosed his cancer in 2012, the median survival for his condition was 18-24 months, although there were always patients who lived longer than expected. David was determined to be among them, and that’s where a long and wonderful friendship and partnership with David and Meghan began. I would like to share some memories with you of David as a patient.

To start off, we determined we needed an alias for David. I proposed King Midas, but that was rather obvious. When a colleague proposed Goldfinger instead, that seemed less conspicuous. At some point I asked David how he felt about the alias, and his response was that the arrogant king was worse than the Bond villain; the name David Goldfinger was here to stay.

As you may know, Yale Medical School is somewhat separate from the main campus, and not merely by a few blocks. Like the main campus we engage in teaching and research, but clinical service is a large component of our mission. Although I and other team members had worked at Yale for years, David taught us to love the Bulldogs, appreciate the value of financial aid, the role of the Endowment in building the university, and to the importance of buying taxable real estate in New Haven. We discussed movies, politics and the U.S. economy. This was David our mentor.

As the years passed, members of our clinical team started going to the Yale vs. Harvard football games, if for no other reason than to take pleasure in seeing David jump up and down with joy when the blue team scored a touchdown.

In clinic, David was an incredible trooper. He suffered many indignities with procedures, side effects of drugs, and the like. He managed the Endowment through it all, took some wonderful vacations, married Meghan, attended weddings of his children Tory and Tim, and welcomed two grand-daughters, Hadley and Eliana, into the world. We had to develop a Goldfinger-adjusted pain scale. Typically, our medical assistant asks about pain on a scale of 1-10, but David’s never rose above a 4. When asked how he was feeling, “I’m doing well” meant everything was stable, “fair” was not too good, and “so-so” was terrible. He rarely complained, even in the most challenging of times.

As David got sicker, his focus on life, his family and on Yale, rather than his illness, continued. He deferred many medical discussions to Meghan. Every visit started off with a conversation about work and/or world affairs prior to discussing symptoms. I and other members of the team looked forward to our almost weekly meetings, as David and Meghan became our family.

And then on May 5, 2021, the unexpected expected happened. The emails and outpouring of grief from and between my physician and nursing colleagues who had cared for him was overwhelming and unprecedented in the 20+ years I have worked here. His memory will be with us forever.