Susan L. Solomon, whose frustration at delays in finding a cure for her teenage son’s type 1 diabetes led her to found what became a leading independent stem cell research lab, died Sept. 8 at her home in Amagansett, NY. She was 71.
The cause was ovarian cancer, according to her husband, Paul Goldberger, the former architecture critic for The New York Times and The New Yorker.
In 2005, Mrs. Solomon embarked on a successful career as a lawyer, new media entrepreneur and management consultant to join forces with Mary Elizabeth Bunzel, a former journalist, to New York Stem Cell Foundationof which Ms. Solomon was chief executive for 17 years and only recently stepped down.
The foundation’s goal is to accelerate the cure for serious diseases through stem cell research, and the lab, the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute, on West 54th Street in Manhattan, describes itself as the largest independent stem cell research lab in the country. It is credited with advancing against Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, neurodegenerative diseases and vision loss, as well as mitochondrial disease in pregnant women, which can lead to stunted growth, kidney disease or neurological disorders in their offspring.
Ms. Solomon and Ms. Bunzel started the foundation in response to President George W. Bush’s administration’s refusal to make a major investment in stem cell research. Their hope was that stem cells – basic cells that can generate new cells with specialized functions – could be converted into cells that produce insulin and thus help people with type 1 diabetes. Such a patient’s pancreas does not produce enough insulin on its own to help the body convert blood sugar into energy.
Stem cell research became a political issue for the Bush White House because the cells were originally harvested only from fertilized embryos, which many social conservatives view as human lives. Some private research organizations at the time also shunned stem cell research, fearing they could jeopardize their funding from the federal government.
Ms. Solomon first saw the New York Stem Cell Foundation in her kitchen after her mother died of cancer and her son developed type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition that required him to constantly monitor his blood sugar levels and inject himself with insulin.
Her goal was to accelerate breakthroughs in medical research into treatments or cures that would be readily available to patients. “She imagined the impossible and made it happen,” says Dr Roy Geronemus, chairman of the board of the foundation.
The foundation has grown into an institution with an annual budget of $40 million and more than 114 employees, including 45 full-time scientists, and its own laboratory. It has also overseen grants that support researchers from other institutions.
As chief executive, Ms. Solomon helped raise more than $400 million for stem cell research, starting with early contributions from former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg; the investor Stanley Druckenmiller and his wife, Fiona; and a foundation run by hedge fund manager Julian Robertson, who passed away last month.
Ms. Solomon told the news: futuremedicine.com in 2012 that in helping to found the organization, she was motivated in part by “a gigantic gap between the work done at academic institutions and the delivery of pills and treatments on the commercial side.”
“We, as a small organization, could never provide the funding that the government can provide,” she said. “But what we can do is create a pathway, resources, fellowship programs and a lab and lead research. We provide the proof of concept so that when public opinion and funding is available, that work can be scaled up.”
Susan Lynn Solomon was born on August 23, 1951 in Brooklyn. Her father, Seymour, co-founded Vanguard Records with his brother Maynard. Her mother, Ruth (Katz) Solomon, was a pianist and manager of concert musicians.
After graduating from Fieldston School in the Bronx, Ms. Solomon earned a bachelor’s degree in history from New York University in 1975 and a law degree from Rutgers in 1978.
Her eclectic career began at the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, where she helped launch a workplace discrimination case on behalf of women who said they hadn’t been given the chance to become firefighters in New York City.
She left the law firm in 1981 to become a consultant and director of corporate affairs for Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment. She later worked for United Satellite Communications; CBS movies; Sotheby’s, where she was chief executive of the first effort to create an online auction platform; and Lancit Media, a producer of children’s TV shows, where she also served as chief executive. In 2000, she founded and led Solomon Partners LLC to provide strategic management advice
Her 1968 marriage to Gary Hirsh, the drummer for the band Country Joe and the Fish, ended in divorce. She married Mr. Goldberger in 1980.
In addition to her husband, who is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a professor of design and architecture at the Parsons School of Design and the New School, Ms. Solomon leaves behind three sons, Adam Hirsh, from her first marriage, and Ben and Alex Goldberger. ; and six grandchildren.
She never gave up hope that researchers would one day develop a treatment for the disease her son Ben has been dealing with for three decades, since he was 9 years old. He is now the editor-in-chief of Time magazine.
“I’m not going to rest until we find a cure for type 1 diabetes,” Ms. Solomon to The Wall Street Journal in 2016. “It’s going to happen in my lifetime. I believe it.”