Sandy and Joan Weill donate $185 million to new UCSF neuroscience institute

Philanthropists Sandy and Joan Weill on Monday announced a $185 million donation for a new neuroscience institute at UC San Francisco, the largest donation in the school's history.|

SAN FRANCISCO - Philanthropists Sandy and Joan Weill on Monday announced a $185 million donation for a new neuroscience institute at UC San Francisco, the largest donation in the school’s history.

The Sonoma County couple, whose $12 million donation in 2014 made possible the completion of the Weill Hall concert space at Sonoma State University, now are helping to establish UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences. Construction of a $316 million facility to house the institute is expected to begin next year in San Francisco at the Mission Bay campus south of AT&T Park.

The donation appears to be the largest ever made by residents of Sonoma County. University representatives also characterized it as among the largest ever for brain research in the United States.

The Weills, who split their time between California and New York, said they hope their gift will spur key advances for some medical disciplines that haven’t received the sort of financial backing given to cancer and cardiovascular research.

“I think that Joan and I have always liked to play with the underdog,” Sanford “Sandy” Weill said Monday while seated beside his wife in a second-floor conference room that looked out toward San Francisco Bay. “And we looked at the neurosciences as underdogs relative to cancer and cardio, where a lot more was being done.”

The couple said they hope the institute will improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, autism, sleeping disorders and other brain-related ailments.

Moreover, Joan Weill called it important that UCSF will include psychiatric research as part of the brain studies to be undertaken at the institute. Her hope is that one day psychiatric illnesses will be treated “like regular diseases.”

“It will take the stigma away,” she said.

The couple, who will celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary in June, are investors in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Forbes estimates the net worth of Sandy Weill, a former chief executive of Citigroup, at $1.06 billion.

UCSF is a powerful force in Northern California’s medical community, serving as a resource for Bay Area residents facing the most difficult health challenges. It operates top-ranked hospitals, graduate schools and research facilities in San Francisco and Oakland.

Dr. Matthew State, chairman of UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry, said the Weills’ donation will be “truly transformational” for the public university.

“It is an extraordinary vote of confidence for them to make this kind of investment in neuroscience at UCSF,” he said.

The Weills moved to Sonoma County in 2010 after purchasing a 362-acre estate in the hills west of Sonoma. While they split their time between two coasts, Sandy Weill said they consider themselves Sonoma County residents.

“New York and the Bay Area are the two most exciting places to be in the United States,” he said.

The couple began their involvement with UCSF about four years ago when Sandy Weill was invited to join a small group of business leaders who sit on the executive council of UCSF Health.

UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said in a statement that the Weills “have challenged us to think big.” The couple, he said, see the great potential to make advances in neuroscience and “transform the treatment of our patients.”

Along that line, the Weills called it important that the 270,000-square-foot institute will include both outpatient services and research. Joan Weill said it will give hope to patients who see firsthand the collaboration between medical practitioners and researchers.

The couple on Monday quickly consumed a box lunch of turkey sandwiches before speaking to a reporter. Their comments during a 30-minute interview touched on matters both light-hearted and sobering.

Joan Weill recalled how her mother-in-law had suffered from Alzheimer’s for 15 years and her father-in-law had suffered from depression. Also, the couple said a close family friend had taken his own life because he felt he couldn’t be cured of depression.

On a lighter note, after his wife explained that researchers are finding proof that men and women’s brains work differently, Sandy Weill quipped, “Joan, I could have told them that.”

The Weills pointed out that UCSF’s neurology and neurosurgery departments each rank first in terms of funds obtained from the National Institutes of Health. They also spoke of advances being made by UCSF researchers. For example, they noted that psychiatry chair State’s research has helped identify 70 genes that contribute substantially to the risk of autism.

Elizabeth Brown, CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County, a local philanthropic organization, said the amount of the Weills’ donation appears many times greater than any other given by a county resident.

UCSF is not only a national-level research institution but also a place that Bay Area residents turn to for medical treatment of especially difficult diseases, Brown said. As such, the Weills’ gift will affect lives both here and around the country.

“This really benefits everyone,” Brown said.

With the $185 million gift to UCSF, the Weills will have made more than $1 billion in charitable contributions to organizations involved in education, medicine, culture and the arts. The gifts include $600 million to Sandy Weill’s alma mater, Cornell University, and the related Weill Cornell Medicine.

Joan Weill called it personally rewarding and far from ordinary to make such a gift.

“It’s still hard for me to believe we’re able to do something like this,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert?Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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