William J. von Liebig Gift Leads Science Center Drive
(Posted April 14, 2000)
To those who knew him, William J. von Liebig was bigger than life. A widely successful international entrepreneur and businessman, Mr. von Liebig comfortably shared with others the pride he felt in growing up in Huntingdon, Pa.
A decorated pilot with the Eighth Air Force in WW II, Mr. von Liebig learned firsthand the importance of commitment and sacrifice and he was never one to forget those who helped him along life’s journey.
One of the most formative stops along the path of Mr. von Liebig’s life was the time he spent at Juniata College. In an interview conducted during his final visit to Juniata, he spoke of his alma mater. "As a native of Huntingdon, I realized at an early age that Juniata was an outstanding force in the Huntingdon community," he said. "Juniata College was everything I was looking for," he explained. "It was a small college, the professors cared about the students, we had the chance to participate in our education and develop friendships. Quality, however, was the most important factor in my choosing Juniata College." Mr. von Liebig enrolled in Juniata’s pre-med program in 1941.
World War II forced Mr. von Liebig to put his college career on hold. He was called into service as a command pilot with the U.S. Eighth Air Force. He successfully completed 25 missions flying a B-24 Liberator over Germany, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Presidential Citation for his military service. Following his discharge from the service, he was determined to complete his pre-med degree.
With the completion of his Bachelor of Science degree from Juniata College in 1946, Mr. von Liebig opted to forego medical school and chose instead to work toward the master’s degree in textile engineering at the Philadelphia College of Textiles. He earned his Masters of Science degree in 1949 and went on to earn the MBA from New York University in 1959.
"To be successful," Mr. von Liebig asserted, "you must have the desire to achieve, a solid educational background, goals that you must work to accomplish, the flexibility to change and the willingness to persevere."
In recognition of the education he received at Juniata College, The William J. von Liebig Foundation announced its commitment to make an $18 million gift to the private, liberal arts college.
Fourteen million dollars will be used to partially fund construction of the $20 million William J. von Liebig Center for Science, which will house the college’s chemistry and biology programs. The additional $4 million will be used to fund ongoing programs and faculty positions, including the William J. von Liebig Chair in Biomedical Sciences. The gift will also provide funding for continuing, collaborative research projects being undertaken by faculty and students.
According to I. David Reingold, professor of chemistry at Juniata, "With the new facility many more students will have an opportunity to become involved in research--exciting, front-line research. Some of the research, cell culture, for example, will be of a type that very few undergraduate colleges are able to do, giving our students a real edge over those at other institutions."
"One of the many positive outcomes of Mr. von Liebig’s generous gift," according to Dr. Jill B. Keeney, a research scientist and associate professor of biology at the college, "will be our ability to offer fellowships to more students who conduct research through the summer months. The advantage for students is in the opportunity to focus on the research. The summer months provide time for total concentration on their work," Keeney asserted, "which they then continue through their junior and senior years, ultimately leading to the preparation of a published thesis. This is invaluable experience in an undergraduate program."
Juniata has produced some of the nation’s top physicians and scientists including Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. William Phillips and Lt. General Ronald R. Blanck, who recently retired as commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command and the Surgeon General of the Army. Current students also excel as evidenced by senior Sharon Simpson’s inclusion in USA Today’s All-USA College Academic Team. The von Liebig support will insure that a high quality educational experience will be the standard for future generations of Juniata graduates.
According to Dr. Thomas R. Kepple Jr., Juniata’s president, Mr. von Liebig’s legacy to Juniata and the Huntingdon region is the largest gift ever
received by the college and one of the largest ever to be presented to a Pennsylvania private, liberal arts college. The gift will allow for dramatic new opportunities for students studying science at Juniata.
"Through his generous gift," President Kepple noted, "Mr. von Liebig has affirmed his support of our educational mission at Juniata, while at the same
time strengthening the entire Huntingdon region by supporting one of the areas largest employers.
"Mr. von Liebig has listened very carefully to our plan to shift the educational paradigm at Juniata from a fact-based method of teaching and learning, to an inquiry-based method," Kepple said. "In effect what we are doing is moving students beyond thinking about science in the classroom to actually becoming scientists in our classrooms and labs.
"The truly unfortunate part of this very exciting time for us at Juniata College is that Mr. von Liebig will not be here to see the dramatic impact that his gift will have on the college and the region."
William von Liebig died on Sunday, February 21, 1999 after an extended illness. The news of his death came to members of the Juniata community as the ongoing details of the gift were being worked out.
"We were deeply saddened by the news of Mr. von Liebig’s death last February," Kepple said. "He was a remarkable man, an entrepreneur, and a risk-taker, a brilliant scientist and inventor. He was someone to look up to and admire. He was a wonderful role-model and a true American hero."
Following a successful stint with a large corporation in New York, Mr. von Liebig, in 1954 went to work for Titus Haffa, a Chicago businessman, and was managing five of Haffa's 38 companies including Meadox Weaving Company, at the time a small company in need of a solid manager. He was charged with developing a suitable product that would be applicable for use in the human circulatory system. He received much acclaim for his work, which aided in the 1950s development and manufacture of a woven dacron tubing for blood vessel replacement. The product was critical in the development of today’s cardiac-related surgical procedures.
When the Haffa conglomerate began to crumble in 1960, Mr. von Liebig bought the Meadox Weaving Company over lunch in Novermber of 1960 for $25,000. The deal was finalized in January of 1961. He changed the name to Meadox Medicals, Inc. The company, once housed in a garage, evolved into a corporation valued in excess of several hundred million dollars. The company grew to become the leading manufacturer of textile vascular grafts.
The company grew over time to include the development of cardiovascular products as well. Meadox Medicals served as the chief supplier of sewing rings for heart valves and was responsible for the development of a new heart valve, synthetic ligaments, and catheters. Mr. von Liebig held 33 patents for vascular prostheses and his inventions have made significant contributions to the field of vascular surgery, particularly to the technologic advancement of textile vascular grafts used in the reconstruction and replacement of human arteries.
Over the years, he received a host of achievement awards, including the Gold Hektoen Award from the American Medical Association, the 1995 Independent Inventor of the Year Award from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the Carothers Medal from the Textile Institute in England.
With the purchase of a company in Denmark in the 1980s, Mr. von Liebig expanded the focus of his company to include an international products division, producing more than 5,000 different catheters to be used in every part of the body. An estimated seven million people are alive today because of the work of his company.
In addition to his leadership in Meadox Medicals, Inc., Mr. von Liebig established The von Liebig Foundation in 1975. The Foundation supports medical research, primarily for the treatment of vascular and cardiovascular diseases. In 1981, the Foundation established an award for Residents and Fellows, granted annually, to encourage and recognize research among young trainees interested in a career in vascular surgery. The von Liebig Foundation provides a grant to fund the Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Awards for the benefit of vascular surgeon scientists in the early stages of their research careers which is jointly sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Lifeline Foundation. The purpose of this award is to support the development of clinician research scientists. In addition, The William J. von Liebig Initiative for Vascular Devices and Technology was recently established at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine through a multiple year grant from the von Liebig Foundation. Other scientific initiatives that stress education, applied research, and support of technology transfer from the laboratory to the physicians' hands in order to improve patient quality of life are supported.
The von Liebig Foundation has continued its philanthropic efforts and expanded its mission to affect an even broader population following the relocation of the von Liebig family to Naples, Florida, in 1990. The foundation has provided substantial gifts in the areas of art and education to the Naples Philharmonic, the Naples Art Association’s von Liebig Art Center, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Naples Depot.
In 1991, Juniata awarded William von Liebig the Alumni Achievement Award for his contributions in the fields of vascular technology and international business. He was named a trustee at the college in 1995 and in May, 1999 posthumously received an honorary degree from the college.
Contact April Feagley at email@example.com or (814) 641-3131 for more information.