Inspired by a conversation she had with a prominent Dana-Farber Cancer Institute oncologist 23 years ago, Susan F. Smith became a leader in shaping cancer care and research at major institutions — and she did so not as a physician, but as a determined, attentive philanthropist.
The idea to bring clinical and research programs for all women’s cancers together in one center was transformative, Dana-Farber officials said. That innovation became a touchstone for other research in the institution, and the approach rippled through the oncology field. “Mrs. Smith was truly remarkable,” said Dr. Eric Winer, director of Dana-Farber’s breast oncology program at what is now the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. “She was a force of nature, an incredibly generous and insightful person, and the woman who really first thought of bringing together all of women’s cancers under one umbrella.”
He added that “what happened here has been mimicked across the country countless times since then. As far as I know, we were the first, and it was because of Mrs. Smith.”
With her husband, Richard A. Smith, Mrs. Smith also was among Greater Boston’s most far-reaching philanthropists, giving major contributions to Dana-Farber and Harvard University and supporting smaller programs to improve the health and education of children in inner-city neighborhoods. She was 83 when she died of cancer Saturday in her Chestnut Hill home.
“She’s a person for whom I have enormous respect and affection,” said Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, where the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center is being built as a place where those in Harvard’s many schools may gather. Mrs. Smith “was someone I enjoyed a lot and admired a lot because of the determination and generosity that was so much a part of her spirit,” Faust added.
Mrs. Smith cochaired the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation with her husband, a former Harvard Corporation member who also is former chairman of General Cinema Corp. and former owner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing house.
The couple’s contributions to Dana-Farber include a 2006 gift of $50 million, the largest single donation in the history of the institute, where research laboratories also bear their names.
The family foundation, meanwhile, supports programs including those aimed at helping charter schools, teacher training, and English language instruction in cities such as Boston, Lawrence, and New Bedford. Other recipients include Boston Health Care for the Homeless, the Pine Street Inn, the Janet Echelman aerial sculpture on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and a long list of nonprofits throughout Greater Boston.
Mrs. Smith undertook her philanthropic role with zealous attention to detail and an equal determination to let the work of each organization speak for itself, while she remained out of the limelight. She is quoted briefly on Dana-Farber’s website for the women’s cancer center that is named for her. Otherwise, recipients of her philanthropy would be hard-pressed to even track down a photo of their benefactor.
Leading the foundation with her husband, Mrs. Smith “believed in the power of a family working together across the generations to do something meaningful, and I think that’s where her great joy really lies,” said Lynne J. Doblin, the foundation’s executive director.
Mrs. Smith had a hand in every grant decision, studying proposals and preparing questions. “She would definitely put applicants on the hot seat,” Doblin said.
That was also the case with Dana-Farber’s physicians and administrators. “She believed that particular cancers needed particular people, and above all women’s cancers needed people who focused entirely on that. She wanted people to do that, and to do that brilliantly,” said Dr. David Nathan, president emeritus of Dana-Farber.
“And she could be very determined and openly critical of management if we weren’t recruiting enough or putting institutional money in certain areas,” he said with a chuckle, adding that “nothing happens without people with drive and vision. She had both.”
Mrs. Smith “could be tough, but what she wanted was always on the side of the angels,” said Dr. Edward Benz, president of Dana-Farber. “She really transformed our women’s cancers program and made it possible for us to recruit world leaders in that program, support their work, and make it, I think, the best program now in the world.”
Mrs. Smith grew up in Newton, the older of two daughters born to the former Sadie Ginsburg and Leo Flax, a paper company executive.
One day she was in Schrafft’s on Boylston Street when Richard Smith noticed her. “She was having lunch with a couple of aunts. I was there with a brother-in-law and was introduced,” he said, recalling that she reminded him of Elizabeth Taylor. “She was a beautiful girl.”
Engaged within a year, they married in 1952, while she was a Jackson College student at Tufts University, which she left after marrying. Leaving college “didn’t hold her back,” her husband said. “She never needed an additional degree for her purposes.”
Before turning much of her attention to examining grant proposals, he said, Mrs. Smith brought her “incredible sense of values” to raising their children, and to subsequent generations who joined her in working on the family’s foundation. “She loved to live through the success of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,” her husband said.
Mrs. Smith began volunteering at Children’s Hospital in Boston when their son James became ill and died in 1970. She went on to help found the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute fund-raising group.
In her charitable work or away from boardrooms, “you couldn’t get a better friend,” said Nathan, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Mrs. Smith. “It was always payback time with her. If you did something for her, you were going to get it back times 10. She was a loyal friend.”
Services will be private for Mrs. Smith, who in addition to her husband leaves her three children, Amy Smith Berylson and Robert, both of Wellesley, and Debra Smith Knez of Boston; her sister, Carol Flax Frieder of Philadelphia; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Whether working with doctors at Dana-Farber, where Winer said “she really pushed all of us to be collaborative and better than we otherwise would be,” or reviewing plans for Harvard’s campus center, Mrs. Smith offered suggestions on everything from funding decisions and physicians to landscaping and furniture.
“Susan was just a terrific partner in this because she had enormous insight into the process,” said Faust, who added that Mrs. Smith consulted with the Harvard graduates and students among her children and grandchildren while researching the campus center. “She was always a straight talker, very warm and very open. It was a pleasure to be engaged with her passion for the project.”
With an eye to the future, Mrs. Smith brought subsequent generations onto the family foundation’s board. “Sometimes during a board meeting, when I looked across at her, she would be watching one of her children or grandchildren giving a presentation and just beaming,” Doblin said. “In addition to all the good we were doing, she took such joy in the family part of the family foundation.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.