When Jane Coffin Childs died of cancer in 1936, her husband, Starling W. Childs, and her sister, Alice S. Coffin, decided to honor her memory by supporting research directed toward understanding and ultimately conquering the disease. Starling W. Childs believed that a university would provide the best setting for the proposed organization and, based on its reputation as a stimulating center for cancer research, Yale appeared to be the best choice. In June of 1937, the same year that the federal government set up the National Cancer Institute, The Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research was established as a gift in trust to Yale University.

The structure of The Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research is designed to express the original purpose of the Fund, free, wide ranging scientific inquiry. The Fund has two Boards, the Board of Managers and the Board of Scientific Advisors.

The original Board of Managers was appointed in 1937 by the Yale Corporation and was chaired by Frederic C. Walcott, a former Senator from Connecticut and a friend of Starling W. Childs. By the Deed of Gift the Board became self-perpetuating and is solely responsible for the administration and management of the Fund. However, all actions relating to scientific matters shall only be taken upon the initiation, or with the advice, of the Board of Scientific Advisors. This Board, originally with seven, and now with twelve members is also self-perpetuating. The first Chairman of the Board of Scientific Advisors was Stanhope Bayne-Jones, Dean of the Yale University School of Medicine. Reflecting the interests of the Scientific Advisrs, one can detect the evolving research emphasis of the Fund: carcinogens of organic and inorganic origins, virus studies, epidemiology, endocrinology, tissue transplants, genetics and mutagenesis, microbiology, biochemistry, recombinant DNA, gene isolation, development and growth control.

As a Fund endowed by one family, it is not surprising that membership on the Board of Managers has been weighted toward members of the family and close friends. The President of Yale University is an ex-officio member. The Board is ultimately responsible for the management of the Fund. All expenditures, whether for scientific ends as recommended by the Board of Scientific Advisors or for administrative needs, and all investment decisions are reviewed and authorized by the Board of Managers. Similarly, all legal matters, such as patent policy pertaining to discoveries by grantees or fellows or changes in the by-laws, fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Managers with the advice of its counsel. The Board of Managers must approve all appointments to either Board. All of the children of Starling and Jane Childs (three sons and a daughter) have served on the Board of Managers. The third and fourth generations are following in this tradition and, including in-laws, account for the nine members of the present slate of Managers.

The annual distributable income over the first ten years or so of the Fund’s existence was $100,000 to $200,000 and was the largest private fund for cancer research for some years after its founding. This gives some idea of where the support of cancer research stood at that time. There were basic points of early agreement between the Boards that were to prove lasting policy guides: full collaboration with all other organizations in the field, and the widest possible circulation of information. The latter led to collaboration in the founding and long support of the Journal of Cancer Research, and in turn to support of tumor registries and atlases. The central theme of the Fund has always been that of fundamental biological research.

The early period of the Fund’s existence was probably the most eventful in terms of establishing procedures and setting precedents and surely the most chaotic, despite the early decisions regarding the basic direction the Fund would take. During the early years of the Fund 70 to 80 percent of the grants went to existing Yale projects or to projects brought to Yale by the Fund.

Some of the major areas supported in the early days included Dr. C.C. Little for his famous breeding laboratory and its invaluable records at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar harbor, Maine; and Dr. L.C. Strong at Yale for the building and support of a new animal house for his use. It also provided support for Dr. William U. Gardner for his endocrinology studies at Yale and for Dr. Charles Huggins of the Ben May Laboratory in Chicago for his studies on the hormonal control of human cancer. Shortly after the Fund was established, it arranged for Dr. Francisco Duran-Reynals to come to Yale and establish a center for the continuing study of the Rous Avian Sarcoma, as well as other modes of viral infection and malignancy. In 1941 Dr. Harry S.N. Greene was invited to come to Yale to pursue his research project involving the transplantation of living cells to the anterior lobe of a guinea pig’s eye. All of the above projects were supported for many years. The Fund was also instrumental in bringing Dr. Paul Howard-Flanders to New Haven for studies in the area of radiobiology.

In the early years the Fund’s resources were devoted entirely to the support of grants for established investigators and their projects in the United States (as well as abroad). For instance, the work of Dr. Jacques Monod at the Institute Pasteur was supported for a number of years by the Fund. Many Japanese investigators also were recipients of grants.

Prior to 1940, the grant money supplied by the Fund almost doubled the financial support available for cancer research from all other sources combined. The phenomenal increase in funds devoted to medical research during the subsequent decades, especially by the federal government, changed the attitudes of the Boards about the best use of their resources.

The Fellowship Program was initiated in 1944 and provided support for applicants who had just received their doctorate. As more and more funds from other sources became available to support research projects the fellowship program of the Fund was expanded, and today it consumes virtually all of the available income of the Fund. In all, over 1,600 individuals have held or are now holding Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellowships. Supporting top young scientist at the critical postdoctoral phase of their careers is felt by both Boards to be the best use of the Fund’s resources.

In 1976, on the suggestion of Doctors Berg and Luria, the Board of Scientific Advisors initiated a series of Symposia for the Fellows. The intent of this program is indicated in the following quote from the initial announcement:

Jane Coffin Childs Fund Fellows are at a decision point in their scientific careers; most of them are deciding what lines of research to pursue when they complete their training. This Symposium series was conceived and is being organized to inform and challenge the Fund’s Fellows about problems in clinical medicine relating to cancer, particularly aspects that have already been advanced, or could profitably be undertaken, by presently available biochemical and molecular approaches. Our hope is that some of the Fellows may recognize the excitement and opportunity that exist at the interface between molecular biology and clinical science and elect to direct their research interests towards these problems

Under the overall title of  “Challenges in Biomedical Sciences”, the Symposia have been held annually since 1976. Attendance has been restricted to the current Fellows, members of the Boards and guest speakers to encourage informal contact. More recently the Board of Scientific Advisors realized that the Fellows Symposia could be used as a training session. Currently, the third year Fellows presents their work in a 15-minute presentation. Prior to the Symposia the Fellows are paired with a member of the Board of Scientific Advisors to mentor them in the content and presentation of their talks. This has proven to be very successful and has allowed the Fund to provide a great training opportunity for the Fellows. The second-year Fellows present their work with a poster. There are designated times for the Fellow to stand with their poster to explain their work to their peers, the Board of Scientific Advisor, the Board of Managers and any invited guests. The posters remain up throughout the Symposium and serve as a focus for informal discussion. This allows the Fellows to find out what their colleagues are doing and for the Board members to see the progress of projects that they know about generally only from the original fellowship application.

While the actual laboratory science and its potential medical applications are the central interest of the Fund, today’s massive literature, in even the narrowest of fields, has slowed rather than facilitated communication. Workshops and small group meetings have become the norm for communication within specific fields. The published literature is taking on more and more of an archival function. We hope that these Symposia, bringing together a special but diverse group of individuals, will serve in a small way to improve communication, to broaden interest and perhaps to influence direction of those who will in the future expand the horizons of biomedical science.