Mrs. Lillian Fishman, who co-founded what is now Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham), was honored today with a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. She was one of four to be so honored. The awards are given each year to recognize living University of Alberta graduates whose achievements have earned them national or international prominence. Mrs. Fishman, 95, graduated from the University in 1936 with a B.Sc. in Home Economics.
“I am so honored to be receiving this award,” said Mrs. Fishman, “but I’m also a little surprised. When Bill (the late Dr. William Fishman) and I started the Institute, we weren’t looking for honors, we just wanted to build the science.”
Mrs. Fishman and Dr. Fishman founded the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation (LJCRF) in 1976. At 62, Dr. Fishman was approaching mandatory retirement age at Boston’s Tufts University but was not ready to retire. The couple decided to take the risky path and relocate to La Jolla, California, where they opened LJCRF in rented lab space on Coast Blvd.
“We started out with almost nothing,” said Mrs. Fishman. “We made do with what we had. For instance, a couple of postdocs built their own gel electrophoresis machine from scavenged parts of old equipment.”
Mrs. Fishman worked side-by-side with her husband and a small staff. In addition to conducting her own experiments, she did whatever she could to help the Institute gain a foothold.
“She did a little bit of everything,” said José Luis Millán, Ph.D., a professor in Sanford-Burnham’s Sanford Children’s Health Research Center. “I remember watching Mrs. Fishman performing molecular enzyme assays. There were around ten of us then. For many years, she ran a welcome luncheon for new postdocs to inform them about the Institute's history and philosophy. Mrs. Fishman also organized a group of friends of the Institute as a vehicle to enhance the recognition of LJCRF in the local community, and she also published a newsletter.”
These early efforts helped create one of the leading biomedical research institutes in the world. In addition to its La Jolla campus, Sanford-Burnham has expanded to Lake Nona, a development in Orlando, Florida and Santa Barbara. The Institute employs more than 800 scientists and produces more than 300 peer-reviewed journal articles each year.
Mrs. Fishman continues to be involved at Sanford-Burnham, honoring young research scientists with the annual Fishman Fund Awards and hosting a series of educational events.
“Lillian Fishman’s tireless dedication and pioneering spirit helped make Sanford-Burnham into the renowned center of discovery it is today,” said Malin Burnham, a longtime supporter whose generosity is reflected in the Institute’s name. “We can all find inspiration in Lillian and Bill’s efforts to better the lives of millions of people.”