A Shared Experience, a Love of Science, and a Desire to Do More
Dr. Theo George Wilson, a retired biochemist researcher and physician who was a professor at various universities including Temple University and Stanford, first connected with Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute through his late wife Claudia Land, who went back to school at Columbia later in life and earned two master’s degrees.
“We were both intrigued by Columbia’s plans for the Zuckerman Institute and particularly enjoyed the Institute’s lectures. As a retired scientist and physician, I found it outstanding that the Institute includes researchers from a breadth of disciplines,” Theo explained.
A long and illustrious career
Theo George Wilson is originally from Scotland but grew up in London. As a teenager during World War II, he served in the military guarding homes while also working as a junior chemist in a laboratory producing penicillin and attending night school to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After the war, he had earned enough money to go to the University of London Imperial College to obtain a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
He came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his research at the Universities of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Princeton. He taught chemistry for a time in New York at Hunter College and then attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Theo joined the faculty of Temple University where he conducted cardiovascular research and then was the medical director at two hospitals in Michigan. During the 1960s he was also involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements—heading a national medical organization that provided medical support to demonstrators, with whom he sometimes marched in the South.
In 1970, Theo moved to California to a new program at Stanford. Claudia, who had studied biology at Columbia in the 1950s, took up a career in law; and they spent 25 years in California together, she as a lawyer and he first as a professor and researcher at Stanford and then as chief of medical policy for the state of California health services.
A return to New York City
In 1993, Claudia was offered a post in New York City, and she eagerly said yes. Claudia had long wanted to return to school at Columbia and in her 70s attended graduate school for the last several years of her life, earning one master’s degree in bioethics and another in narrative medicine. Theo retired to New York.
“Of course, we talked at home about what she was studying and doing,” Theo said. “I always thought she was smarter than I was. She was so intellectually involved and wanting to keep connected. Both of us were very interested in what Columbia was doing and immensely enjoyed learning about research at the Zuckerman Institute.”
Theo credits the vision of the Zuckerman Institute’s leadership, the late Thomas M. Jessell, Ph.D., and now Rui Costa, D.V.M, Ph.D., in helping him design gifts that were meaningful for him and for the Institute.
“I was at various stages in my life a research scientist, a practicing physician, and a teaching physician, and then I joined the government and was a policy director in making public health decisions. I know the value of an interdisciplinary approach to science, and I believe supporting Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute is a great investment. It is the future.”
Honoring his wife and preserving his name
When Claudia passed away in 2016, Theo revisited his estate plan and generously decided to include the Institute as a beneficiary—leading to two gifts that will establish The Claudia Land and Dr. Theo George Wilson Ideas Fund and The Claudia Land and Dr. Theo George Wilson Scholars Fund. “When Claudia died, she presented me with a problem that had not existed before; I had a will that was very brief and to the point: I leave everything to my beloved wife, end of story,” Theo said. “When that was no longer possible, I started looking for charitable organizations that I should support—an opportunity to preserve my family name and to do good where it is most needed.” With no living relatives, it is important to Theo that the funds at the Institute bear his name and that of his wife.
This year Theo also decided to make a third commitment via a charitable gift annuity with Columbia to benefit the Institute and him. “Gift annuity rates are much higher returns than other investments, and there is the immediate effect of the charitable tax deduction the first year,” Theo said in explaining why he chose a gift annuity. “Because of my age, the reward to me in terms of annuity payments is not going to last very long; most of that money is going to be available to the recipient quite soon, and that is my intention.”
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