UCSF Mourns the Loss of Herb Sandler

By Lindsay Boeger

Herbert Sandler, a longtime advocate of UC San Francisco’s basic science and neurosciences research efforts, passed away this week at age 87. Sandler is survived by his children, James and Susan.

“Herb was a passionate supporter of interdisciplinary science at UCSF whose leadership and counsel will be greatly missed,” noted UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “We were tremendously fortunate to benefit from his and his late wife Marion’s belief in the power and importance of biomedical science and their willingness to support some of our most innovative projects over the past five decades.”

Sandler grew up in New York’s Lower East Side. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1951 and from Columbia Law School in 1954. Following law school, he worked for the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor and as an attorney at a small law firm in lower Manhattan. He met Marion, who passed away in 2012, in the Hamptons in 1960, and they were married for 51 years. They moved to California in 1963 and, for the next 43 years, served as husband and wife CEOs of Golden West Financial Corp., a risk-averse residential mortgage portfolio lender. They were inducted into the Bay Area Business Hall of Fame in 2001, and named CEO of the Year by Morningstar in 2004. They sold their company in 2006 to focus on philanthropy full-time. For their tremendous service to the community and to UCSF, they were awarded the UCSF Medal in 2010.

In 1991, they established the Sandler Foundation, which became a tremendous source of support for and partner to UCSF. The Foundation invested in organizations and leaders that seek to improve the rights, opportunities, and well-being of others, and supported efforts in five areas: international human rights, early childhood education, the environment, medical research and advocacy. The Sandlers applied the same business-oriented discipline to their philanthropic endeavors that had garnered them success at Golden West, including conducting extensive due diligence to identify gaps and evaluate the potential impact of their charitable contributions.

Herb Sandler talking to Sam Hawgood and Keith Yamamoto

Herb Sandler (center) speaks with Chancellor Sam Hawgood (left), MBBS, and Keith Yamamoto, PhD, vice chancellor for science policy and strategy and a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology, at the recent 20th anniversary event for the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research. Photo by Sonya Yruel

A Champion of Basic Science

No gap seemed greater in science than the need for high-risk, high-reward basic science. Mr. Sandler was a vocal advocate for such research and believed that curiosity-driven discovery was the true way to move medicine forward. In 1997, Herb and Marion established the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR), which challenges UCSF scientists to pursue basic science projects that are creative, risky and transformative. They recognized the lack of funding for daring, cutting-edge ideas with huge potential for enormous transformative impact, and truly enjoyed providing support to young scientists challenging the status quo and questioning conventional wisdom.

“The Sandlers enabled UCSF to encourage and reward bold ideas and the potential for transformative impact, rather than hewing to tradition and feasibility,” says Keith Yamamoto, PhD, vice chancellor for science policy and strategy and a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology. “Over the past couple of decades, PBBR has truly become an a distinctive foundational element for basic science in the UCSF community, and helped us leverage an enormous amount of follow-on National Institutes of Health support once the risky PBBR proposals were proven successful.”

One Sandler Fellow, Joseph De Risi, professor of biochemistry and biophysics and co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub said, “Without these awards, much of the science I did in my earlier career at UCSF I simply would not have been able to do. There’s no way the NIH would have afforded it, and yet the Sandlers had the vision to fund things that are not really guaranteed to succeed and have a substantial chance of failure. Some of my Sandler awards did fail, but I learned many great things from those and they shaped who I am today and how my lab goes about its science. For that I’m very grateful.”

The Sandlers were also prolific donors to asthma research, both at UCSF and at other institutions, as Marion suffered from the disease. They established the American Asthma Foundation Research Program and the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center at UCSF, as well as the Marion and Herbert Sandler Distinguished Professorship in Asthma Research, which is currently held by Richard Locksley, MD. Locksley, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for 2017. Of the Sandlers, he has said “It’s hard to think of a family that has given as much to the basic sciences. Their faith in our community was inspiration – an energizing force for the entire campus.”

According to Sandler, “UCSF is a special place. There is no university in the world that can match the quality of its people, the excellence of its basic science research, and the unique culture of collaboration that leads to great science.”

Fostering Translational Research

portrait of Sandler and DeRisi

Herb Sandler and Joseph DeRisi, PhD, who was a Sandler Fellow.

Sandler also understood the power in bringing together bench researchers, clinicians, and patients together to accelerate clinical innovation. Nowhere was this belief more evident than in the establishment of the Sandler Neurosciences Center on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in 2012. The five-story, 237,000 square foot building brings several of the world’s leading clinical and basic research programs together under one roof, providing an environment that encourages collaboration and supports the goals of finding new diagnostics, treatments, and cures for a number of intractable neurological disorders. It also houses the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, the department of Neurology, the W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience, and the Memory and Aging Center.

Their support for the University’s groundbreaking research and clinical care efforts in neurological diseases helped propel UCSF’s growth and leadership in the area, which continues today. Stephen Hauser, MD, director of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and former chair of the department of Neurology, said, “Herb was a dedicated and visionary partner, and an integral member of the UCSF neurosciences community. His support was key to development of a human neurogenetics effort at UCSF, and expansion of neurosciences to Mission Bay in the building that bears his family name. High standards, a thirst for innovation, and a belief in the power of collaboration mark everything that Herb made possible for our community. Although we will miss him enormously, his spirit will live on at UCSF.”

Support Across UCSF

Herb and Marion also generously supported the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, the UCSF Center for Next-Generation Precision Medicine, and the Sandler Center for Basic Research in Parasitic Diseases.

Beyond UCSF, the Sandlers helped found the Center for Responsible Lending, the Center for American Progress, and ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism website. They were also members of the Giving Pledge, and were committed to strategically giving away their wealth philanthropically. Herb was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013, and received a Chancellor’s Citation from UC Berkeley in 2010.

ORal HisTory of the Sandlers

The Marion and Herbert Sandler oral history project documented the intertwined lives of the Sandlers through their shared pursuits in raising a family, serving as co-CEOs for the savings and loan Golden West Financial, and establishing a remarkably influential philanthropy in the Sandler Foundation.

Explore the 18-part project by the UC Berkeley Oral History Center