UT Southwestern joins Dallas, the state, and the nation in mourning the loss of Peter O’Donnell Jr., a visionary philanthropist and catalyst for progress

Peter O’Donnell Jr.
Peter O’Donnell Jr.

DALLAS – October 11, 2021 – Peter O’Donnell Jr., whose vision, legendary generosity, and cherished friendship graced UT Southwestern Medical Center for many decades, passed away Oct. 10 at the age of 97.

Throughout a lifetime of inspired philanthropy, Mr. O’Donnell and his late wife, Edith, along with the O’Donnell Foundation they established in 1957, contributed more than $300 million to UT Southwestern, supporting some of the most innovative and impactful programs at the Medical Center. The O’Donnells’ gifts to UT Southwestern, almost all made anonymously and without public recognition at the time, transformed the Medical Center into an internationally recognized research leader.

“Excellence was a watchword for Mr. O’Donnell in everything he did and touched. He was a giant of our institution and a quiet driving force in advancing medical science,” said Daniel K. Podolsky, M.D., President of UT Southwestern.

As Chairman of the O’Donnell Foundation, Mr. O’Donnell committed himself to developing and funding model programs designed to strengthen education, research, and clinical care.

“Peter O’Donnell helped foster an environment of innovation and discovery at UT Southwestern that has enabled transformative progress in biomedical research,” said Dr. Podolsky. “As we mourn the passing of one of UT Southwestern’s most stalwart supporters, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to publicly recognize Mr. O’Donnell’s magnificent generosity for the first time in 2015 through the naming of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern.”

Recognizing brain injury in its various forms as one of the greatest challenges of our time, Mr. O’Donnell committed $36 million to create a new institute dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of the brain – from the molecular level of brain function to the root causes of diseases and damage that occur with such conditions as traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s.

“Recent and rapid advancements in neuroscience and neurotechnology offer great promise, making this a particularly important time to invest in this critical field,” said Mr. O’Donnell at the time he made the gift. “UT Southwestern has repeatedly proven its ability to take on some of the most difficult scientific challenges and advance the field of medicine, benefiting patients today and for generations to come.”

The establishment of the O’Donnell Brain Institute was the capstone of a remarkable 40-year partnership between Mr. O’Donnell and UT Southwestern, which was set in motion in 1981 when he founded the Friends of the Center for Human Nutrition. His investments in the Center for Human Nutrition for more than three decades enabled UT Southwestern investigators to make key discoveries that have expanded our understanding of the role nutrition plays in the prevention and treatment of chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.

“Thanks to Peter’s ongoing support, the Center was able to conduct some of the first tests on the effectiveness of statin medications to lower cholesterol levels, as well as influence the development of numerous national guidelines, notably the determination of safe and unsafe dietary fats and the importance of weight loss and exercise for reducing cardiovascular risk,” said Scott Grundy, M.D., Ph.D., the Center’s longtime Director and a close friend of Mr. O’Donnell. “He helped us apply rigorous science to the field of nutrition.”

Peter O’Donnell, Jr., center, meets with Nobel Laureates Drs. Alfred Gilman, Joseph Goldstein, Michael Brown, and Johann Deisenhofer
Peter O’Donnell, Jr., center, meets with Nobel Laureates Drs. Alfred Gilman, Joseph Goldstein, Michael Brown, and Johann “Hans” Deisenhofer.

Mr. O’Donnell was passionate in his support for addressing the problem of obesity and, consequently, the myriad economic, societal, and medical complications derived from it. In addition to his support for the Center for Human Nutrition, he made significant contributions to support research in the Department of Molecular Genetics. This support helped propel the work of Nobel Laureates Michael Brown, M.D., and Joseph Goldstein, M.D., whose research served as the foundation for the development of statin drugs now used to control cholesterol in tens of millions of people around the globe.

“Peter O’Donnell was not only a wise and generous philanthropist – he was an inventor. When he saw a need, he invented a program to meet it. He challenged us to make it work, and then he followed it closely to make certain that we were living up to his vision. We would not have a Nutrition Center, an Endowed Scholars Program, or a Brain Institute without Mr. O’Donnell’s vision. He was a true hero of UT Southwestern,” said Dr. Goldstein, Chair of Molecular Genetics, and Dr. Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease.

Mr. O’Donnell understood the importance of assembling the best and brightest researchers to tackle medicine’s most difficult problems and providing them with the resources necessary to take bold risks that often lead to paradigm-shifting discoveries. In addition to the unwavering support he provided to Dr. Brown and Dr. Goldstein, many of Mr. O’Donnell’s gifts helped UT Southwestern recruit, retain, and support the work of some of the most brilliant minds in biomedical research, including Nobel Laureate Bruce Beutler, M.D., who has advanced medical science’s collective understanding of the genetics of the immune system through his work as Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense.

"Peter O’Donnell was not only a wise and generous philanthropist – he was an inventor. When he saw a need, he invented a program to meet it. He challenged us to make it work, and then he followed it closely to make certain that we were living up to his vision. We would not have a Nutrition Center, an Endowed Scholars Program, or a Brain Institute without Mr. O’Donnell’s vision. He was a true hero of UT Southwestern."
Nobel Laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown

Mr. O’Donnell was committed to supporting early career medical researchers who represent the future of science and medicine. He provided a challenge grant in 1997 to UT Southwestern that was the impetus for the Endowed Scholars Program in Medical Science. Armed with the knowledge that more than half of all scientists awarded the Nobel Prize began their work under the guidance of current Nobel Laureates, Mr. O’Donnell worked to ensure UT Southwestern would stand apart from other institutions in the nurturing of scientific protégés. To encourage the careers of scientists and engineers more broadly across the state of Texas, he established the annual Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards, presented by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST) to honor and help fund outstanding early career researchers in science, medicine, and engineering. Continuing his commitment to support the best and brightest researchers, in July 2014 Mr. O’Donnell further invested in rising stars with a gift to propel clinical innovation in cancer by establishing the Eugene P. Frenkel, M.D., Clinical Scholars Program.

Although Mr. O’Donnell’s impact on UT Southwestern was most expansive in advancing its research programs, his efforts extended to all dimensions of UT Southwestern’s mission. It was his challenge and support that led UT Southwestern to be among the first institutions to implement an electronic medical record for both inpatient and outpatient care. The O’Donnell Foundation also provided a lead gift to help launch UT Southwestern’s Clinical Services Initiative.

“The school is already known for its excellence in basic science and in recruiting outstanding scientists and clinical physicians,” said Mr. O’Donnell when he made the gift in 2003. “However, the explosion of patient loads and the complexities of managed care make it important to recruit more outstanding clinical faculty, increase their productivity with state-of-the-art technology, provide a quality nursing staff, and support clinical research programs so patients benefit sooner from the great discoveries in basic science.”

While Mr. O’Donnell has left an especially indelible imprint on UT Southwestern, he and Edith have also left a legacy at many other educational and civic organizations across our region, our state, and our country. As but one example, his support of Advanced Placement programs in science across this state and the country, particularly in high schools serving students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, has promoted STEM education and opportunity that will undoubtedly have an impact that will be felt for generations to come.

In public education, Mr. O’Donnell founded the Advanced Placement Incentive Program and served as Chairman of AP Strategies (APS). This program dramatically increased the number of high school students, especially Hispanic and Black students, who pass college-level exams in math, science, and English. The incentive program served as the model for both the state of Texas and the federal Advanced Placement incentive programs.

In addition, he established Laying the Foundation, a teacher-training organization for grades six through 12 with the goal of better preparing students to enter the Advanced Placement pipeline. Mr. O’Donnell also was instrumental in creating the National Math + Science Initiative, which has enhanced math and science education programs nationally through teacher-training programs and other efforts to recruit and prepare more college students to become dedicated teachers.

In higher education outside of UT Southwestern, the O’Donnell Foundation provided a challenge grant of $32 million for the creation of science and engineering chairs at UT Austin and developed a plan that created the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences.

At the state, national, and international levels, Mr. O’Donnell was a member of the Presidents' Circle of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, where he served on a committee that produced a report to Congress, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” recommending the priority actions the United States should take to ensure its ability to compete in the 21st century global economy. He served on President Ronald Reagan’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and as a Trustee of the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization dedicated globally to preventive medicine. In Texas, he served as Commissioner of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission; as a member of the Texas Select Committee on Higher Education; and as a founding member of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas.

“Perhaps the most important aspect of any community is the health of its citizens,” said William T. Solomon, a current Trustee and former Chairman of the Board of Southwestern Medical Foundation. “The citizens of Dallas have benefited enormously from the vision and generosity of Peter O’Donnell and the indelible mark he has left on research, education, and health care in our city.”

Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr.
Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr.

Along with Edith, Mr. O’Donnell was a major supporter of many arts organizations in Dallas, the state, and the nation. The O’Donnells developed the plan to endow the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Principal Musician Chairs, and provided significant support to the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the AP Arts & Music Theory incentive program. They launched Met: Live at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – free live viewings of New York’s Metropolitan Opera performances for Dallas public school students, their immediate families, and their teachers.

In 2008, Mr. O’Donnell was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his outstanding philanthropic leadership. That same year, Edith and Peter O’Donnell together received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Southern Methodist University for their pivotal roles in advancing the arts and education, and they were presented the College Board’s Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in education. In 2013, Mr. O’Donnell was awarded UT Austin Presidential Citation and the Cooper Institute Legacy Award, both in honor of his visionary leadership and extraordinary contributions to transforming lives.

A Dallas native who pursued careers in investments and philanthropy, Mr. O’Donnell received a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from The University of the South and a Master of Business Administration degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The contributions cited are just some of the many ways in which Peter O’Donnell, together with Edith, supported UT Southwestern. 

“With his determination to stay out of the spotlight, the full extent of Mr. O’Donnell’s impact on society is likely not known by many of those who have benefited from his vision and generosity,” Dr. Podolsky said. “He touched legions with compassion, an uncommon generosity, and an earnest love of mankind. The scope and depth of ways in which he advanced the work of the Medical Center is truly remarkable. He will be deeply missed.”

Dr. Beutler holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie, Sr.

Dr. Brown holds The W. A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.

Dr. Goldstein holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl, Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D., Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 25 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 117,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 3 million outpatient visits a year.