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Joan Klein Jacobs, Beloved Philanthropist and Community Leader, Has Died

Photo of Joan Jacobs
Joan Jacobs, pictured here at the topping out ceremony of Jacobs Medical Center at UC San Diego Health.

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Joan Klein Jacobs, a dedicated and visionary philanthropist, civic leader and patron of the arts, died on May 6. She was 91.

Jacobs left a legacy of vast positive impact on UC San Diego, the region and around the globe. Together with her husband, Irwin, Jacobs’ philanthropic support spanned the entirety of the UC San Diego campus – from health and medicine, to arts and culture, to technology and global transformation. In addition, she dedicated herself to serving on many university, community and civic boards, with the goal of enhancing the region with excellent health care, arts, culture and education. 

“Joan was a visionary civic leader and philanthropist whose mission was to make the world a better place – and a dear personal friend,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “Whether it was providing the best quality health care in an environment that promoted healing, advocating for the arts and culture on campus and the broader region, or providing scholarships and fellowships for promising students who will go on to shape the future, Joan’s legacy will be long lasting at UC San Diego, the whole San Diego community and beyond. We will miss her greatly.”

Joan and Irwin Jacobs have received multiple prestigious awards from UC San Diego for their dedication to the campus. They received the Chancellor’s Medal in 2010, which is one of the highest honors given by UC San Diego for exceptional service in support of the university's mission. Joan and Irwin Jacobs were also the inaugural recipients of UC San Diego’s Lifetime Legacy Award in 2020. Joan Jacobs was named as an honorary co-chair of the Campaign for UC San Diego, which raised more than $3 billion, surpassing its fundraising goal by $1 billion when it concluded in June 2022.

Jacobs served as a trustee of the UC San Diego Foundation Board from 2000 to 2006. She chaired the “Friends of the Stuart Collection,” a support group for the body of world-class contemporary sculptures on the UC San Diego campus, as well as the UC San Diego Health Advisory Board of Jacobs Medical Center. She was a founder of ArtPower at UC San Diego, which presents world-class performing arts for the campus and community. She also served on the board of the La Jolla Playhouse, on the UC San Diego campus, since 1996.

Joan and Irwin Jacobs received the first UC San Diego Lifetime Legacy Award in 2020.

A legacy of generosity

Joan and Irwin Jacobs’ dedication to transforming the world through science, technology, arts, culture and health care is evident throughout their extraordinary philanthropy to UC San Diego that has spanned multiple decades.

With a passion for health care, Joan and Irwin Jacobs donated $100 million to establish the 245-bed Jacobs Medical Center at UC San Diego Health, which opened in 2016. The 10-story facility integrates world-class health care with healing arts and culinary offerings to provide an extraordinary healing experience for patients and families. Since opening, more than 75,000 patients have been cared for with comprehensive medical and surgical services and clinical trials within an academic medical environment.

“We will be forever grateful to Joan and Irwin Jacobs and their family for transforming both UC San Diego Health and the entire community with their hugely generous and visionary gifts,” said Patty Maysent, CEO, UC San Diego Health. “I will always remember Joan’s gracious wit and wisdom as she personally guided the design and creation of Jacobs Medical Center. She cared deeply about the individual experience of patients, hand selecting the art collection and culinary choices.  Joan’s legacy will be honored with each patient who leaves Jacobs Medical Center with a new opportunity to experience life.”

The Joan Klein Jacobs Healing Arts Collection at Jacobs Medical Center is a meaningful reminder of Jacobs’ passion for both the arts and health care. The art collection in and around the hospital was envisioned by Jacobs to introduce art and healing throughout the facility.

“Research shows art has the ability to heal and de-stress,” said Jacobs of the collection. “What we hope to create with the artwork is an uplifting environment that fosters warmth, comfort and inspiration. The goal is to increase feelings of well-being while promoting healing."

Joan Jacobs speaking at a podium, with Irwin Jacobs in the background
Joan Jacobs spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the UC San Diego Jacobs Medical Center with husband, Irwin Jacobs, by her side.

The collection comprises more than 150 individual works, which offer moments of discovery throughout the public areas of Jacobs Medical Center, including waiting rooms and corridors as well as patient areas. The collection features works by many internationally known artists, including a monumental sculpture by artist Jeff Koons titled Party Hat (Orange), which Joan and Irwin donated to reflect the transformative power of the healing that happens at the Jacobs Medical Center, as well as the celebration of new life at the hospital’s Birth Center.

Advancing the facility even further, Joan and Irwin Jacobs recently helped bring the Center for Health Innovation at UC San Diego Health into full reality with $22 million in support. The patient care “mission control center” within Jacobs Medical Center serves as a hyper-connected hub to monitor patient health and safety with the goal of developing AI algorithms and models that improve personalized treatment, health equity and patient experience. The couple also established the Jacobs Retina Center at Shiley Eye Institute to drive research to find solutions for retina disorders that affect patients of all ages.

In 1997, Joan and Irwin Jacobs made a generous $15 million gift to name the Jacobs School of Engineering. Irwin Jacobs served as a professor of engineering at UC San Diego from 1966 to 1972, before leaving academia to co-found Linkabit and then QUALCOMM.

The couple followed their initial investment in the school in 2003 with an endowment gift of $110 million to support scholarships, fellowships and faculty support at the Jacobs School. The gift represented the largest gift to UC San Diego at that point in time. Since then, the Jacobs School of Engineering has grown and expanded its reach to become one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the nation.

Irwin and Joan Jacobs with Chancellor Khosla in front of Jeff Koons' Party Hat (Orange)

Irwin and Joan Jacobs with Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla in front of Jeff Koons' Party Hat (Orange) at Jacobs Medical Center.

Joan and Irwin Jacobs also established the Jacobs School Scholars and Fellows Program in 2000. The Scholars program supports exceptional undergraduate students at the Jacobs School with funding to cover full tuition, room and board, and expenses over four years; while the Fellows program provides first-year fellowships to outstanding incoming graduate students. More than 250 students have directly benefited from the program over the last two decades, and the entire Jacobs School community has benefited by the scholarship, leadership, innovation and creativity of these exceptional undergraduate and graduate students.

“Joan Jacobs will always be at the heart of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. All of us will miss her greatly,” said Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and Special Adviser to the Chancellor. “Joan was a wonderful partner to Irwin, as well as to the region, and to the UC San Diego campus. Here at the Jacobs School, Joan's passion was to make sure that we graduated well rounded individuals who appreciated people as well as technology. Our Jacobs Scholars and Jacobs Fellows always enjoyed the cultural events that Joan and Irwin made possible every year. I'm grateful that Joan always reminded us that we must inspire and educate our students holistically through both art and technology.”

In addition to supporting UC San Diego Health and the Jacobs School of Engineering, Joan and Irwin Jacobs have provided support for numerous endowed faculty chairs, fellowships and scholarships at UC San Diego School of Medicine, the Stuart Collection, Rady School of Management and the School of Global Policy and Strategy.

In 2021, the couple donated a $14 million endowed gift to the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. The gift supports the school’s Center on Global Transformation (CGT) research on how global economic and political structures are changing and how advances in science and technology improve policy and alter the distribution of wealth around the world.

At Joan and Irwin Jacobs’ request, the center was renamed as the Peter F. Cowhey Center on Global Transformation. Cowhey has served as dean of the School of Global Policy and Strategy for nearly two decades and retired in 2021.

In the community

A group of students with Joan and Irwin Jacobs seated at center
At front center, Joan and Irwin Jacobs at a 20th celebration of the Jacobs Scholars and Fellows Program in 2019.

Joan Jacobs’ giving and advocacy has spanned far beyond the walls of UC San Diego. Together, the Jacobs have supported the San Diego Symphony, the High Tech High Charter School System, San Diego Food Bank, Second Chance for those completing prison terms and the Jewish Family Service, among numerous other nonprofit organizations and community groups. Joan and Irwin Jacobs donated $10 million to Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest in 2022.

The couple also provided significant support to Hillel of San Diego, which serves an estimated 5,000 Jewish undergraduate and graduate students at institutions of higher education across San Diego County. 

Lending her leadership skills to many local organizations, Jacobs served as vice president of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego County, served on the Lang Lang Foundation Board and chaired several committees for the San Diego Symphony. She was also the chairwoman of the Board of the San Diego Symphony Endowment Foundation and the International Collectors of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Jacobs was a member of the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture’s Public Art Committee, and supported public art within the region, which included serving on the Commission for Art for the Federal Courthouse in San Diego. In 2015, she and her husband received the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy from the Carnegie Foundation, and the Philanthropy in the Arts Award from Americans for the Arts.  

Jacobs graduated from the Barnard School for Girls in New York City and received a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University. She was trained as a dietician and worked for the Groton Central Schools and at Boston Lying-in Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital). In 2008, she received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts, and she is the 2015 recipient of the Helen Bull Vandenvort Alumni Achievement Award from Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.

She is survived by her husband Irwin, four sons, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any donations can be made in Joan Jacobs’ memory to the Jacobs Cushner Food Bank, Jewish Family Service of San Diego, San Diego Symphony or Lawrence Family JCC, Jacobs Family Campus.

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Joan Jacobs talking with woman with lights behind
Joan Jacobs, pictured here at a campus celebration, was a beloved community leader, philanthropist and patron of the arts.

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