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About William H. Donner

About William H. Donner

ALTHOUGH it is almost five decades since the passing of William H. Donner, the breadth of vision and the willingness to take risks that characterized his business and philanthropic careers are fittingly memorialized in The William H. Donner Foundation.

Born in Columbus, Indiana, in 1864, Mr. Donner took over the family-owned grain mill while still in his twenties. In relatively short order, he restored to profitability what had previously been a failing enterprise. The acumen and energy he displayed were harbingers of the success that thereafter attended him in virtually every undertaking.

Before he was 30, Mr. Donner foresaw that the then recent discovery of natural gas deposits in Indiana would inevitably attract new industries to the area. He invested promptly--and with conspicuous success--in real estate. His foresight was rewarded, and the resulting profits largely financed his next major venture. Realizing that the demand for tin plate was increasing rapidly, Mr. Donner became interested in developing innovative technologies that could effect substantial savings in the manufacture of tin plate. By the time he was 30, he had launched the National Tin Plate Company of North Anderson, Indiana; three years later, having patented an ingenious rolling process for tin plate manufacture, he constructed another plant in Monessen, Pennsylvania. Eventually, he sold all his tin plate interest to the American Tin Plate Company.

Mr. Donner's next venture was in steel products. With the Mellon brothers and Henry Clay Frick, he founded a rod, wire, and nail enterprise, known as the Union Steel Company, of which he was President. Union Steel was based in Donora, Pennsylvania, a town whose name derives from those of Mr. Donner and Nora Mellon. The company was merged with the Sharon Steel Company in 1902, and was purchased in 1903 by the United States Steel Corporation. Mr. Donner later became President of Cambria Steel Company and then Chairman of the Board of the Pennsylvania Steel Company. His final business undertaking involved the purchase of assets which formed the Donner Steel Company of Buffalo, New York, an enterprise he operated successfully until selling his interest in 1929. In that year a merger of Donner Steel, Republic Iron and Steel, and two other independent steel companies was arranged by Cyrus Eaton.

After losing his son, Joseph, to cancer in 1929, Mr. Donner turned his formidable energies to the then infant field of cancer research. He established the International Cancer Research Foundation in 1932 to honor his son's memory. This pioneering Foundation made grants to a wide range of institutions, including one grant that established the Donner Radiation Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley to support the innovative work of Dr. John E. Lawrence. The work of this laboratory provided the impetus for what later became the remarkable new field of nuclear medicine. In 1961, The William H. Donner Foundation was incorporated with the endowment originally established by Mr. Donner for the International Cancer Research Foundation.

Following his retirement from business, Mr. Donner spent much of his time in Montreal, where he supported the pioneering work of Dr. Wilder Penfield, then Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute. In 1950, Mr. Donner established the Donner Canadian Foundation, which today is one of the largest national foundations in Canada. William H. Donner died in Montreal in 1953.

The Trustees and Officers of The William H. Donner Foundation have held steadfast to two key philanthropic principles of the founder--acceptance of clearly defined risks and the judicious use of incentive grants to advance thoughtful, creative projects.