A Lasting Legacy
Multi-Generations of Supporting Wistar Science
Ken Nimblett remembers well the harrowing work that he did to support AIDS services and education in the early days of the epidemic, where he met his future husband Rusty Miller who was also working in the cause.
“It was a scary time. People called the HIV–AIDS hotline in all stages of emotional distress—they were frantic, angry, scared and in need of information and support—and not only gay people,” recalled Ken. “People from all walks of life were calling for more information on this devastating disease.”
As it would turn out, the efforts of Ken and Rusty had impacts that lasted well beyond those calls and the Boston area where they lived. Rusty’s mother, Martha Stengel Miller, who had been deeply involved in service in her hometown of Philadelphia, was so inspired by her son’s commitment to the HIV cause that in 1995 she joined forces with bold, fresh-faced scientist Dr. Luis Montaner at The Wistar Institute.
They were a powerful duo—Martha was a connector and Dr. Montaner was eager to connect the Philadelphia community of people living with HIV to the HIV clinical trials he was advancing. Before she passed away in 2008, Martha played a critical role in the startup funding of Dr. Montaner’s community outreach, and her contributions opened the door to attracting additional funding for HIV research. Together with Rusty and Ken, Martha was also a leading supporter of Dr. Montaner’s global HIV work.
“Martha’s relationship with Luis fostered and funded some of the original Wistar programs,” said Ken. “A whole new piece of her life came alive when she got involved with Wistar. She linked Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers with Wistar and was a part of creating the Jonathan Lax Lectures [a memorial lecture series hosted by Wistar that brings leading HIV researchers to speak to the Philadelphia community]. Martha had a strong affinity to matters that dealt with caring and the health of people. That was her nature; she was that kind of soul.”
Her relationship with Wistar was almost meant to be: Martha’s father Dr. Alfred Stengel had been elected to Wistar’s Board of Managers in 1931 and went on to serve as the Board president until his death in 1939.
Thus, Dr. Stengel represents the start of a three-generation lineage that has supported Wistar research. During the last two decades, the Stengel-Miller family has provided essential funding to HIV cure research, thereby paving the way for Wistar innovation.
After Martha passed away, Rusty and his husband Ken continued to carry the philanthropic torch. In 2016, Dr. Montaner was awarded a nearly $23M National Institute of Health grant to advance HIV cure research with a dream team of top HIV researchers. Dr. Montaner was to tell Rusty of the exciting major grant in person at that year’s Jonathan Lax lecture, but tragically Rusty died unexpectedly that afternoon of acute cardiac arrest.
“When Rusty died suddenly on the day of the Lax lecture, my world fell apart in the way anyone’s would when one’s spouse dies. We had been a team and I knew I would need to carry on this legacy from his grandfather and mother. To me, continuing to support this work is moving closer to a cure,” Ken said. “Being acquainted with Luis and learning how his work in South Africa and Vietnam became a global endeavor has been inspiring. Wistar is a leader on the forefront and to me that’s worth its weight in gold.”
Following Rusty’s passing, a unitrust that was initially set up by his mother Martha was bequeathed to The Wistar Institute to support its HIV programs. The gift supported the recruitment of Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen and allowed Wistar to purchase a cutting-edge digital PCR machine as part of the recruitment offer to Dr. Mohsen. Funds from the Miller Estate were also used to support collaboration and operation of Wistar’s participation in the HIV-1 Patient Partnership with Philadelphia clinical care providers, such as Philadelphia FIGHT’s Jonathan Lax Treatment Center. One of the strongest and most distinctive features of this program is that it provides patient donors with information on the type of research carried out on the samples they provide.
In early 2021, Ken furthered the commitment started by Martha and Rusty by establishing his own legacy. He pledged an irrevocable estate gift in his will for $1.5M to name an endowed professorship in memory of his mother-in-law. The Martha Stengel Miller Professorship will support a Wistar faculty member working in the area of HIV research. In the event that HIV research is no longer needed due to a cure, the professorship will be directed to a faculty member working in infectious disease research, including pathogens that are emerging or that continue to plague our society. It is in line with the steadfast support that Martha, Rusty and Ken have provided to the Institute over their long tenure as friends of Wistar.
“I fully embrace the establishment of the professorship in Rusty’s mother’s name, which I know would please Rusty greatly and would create a lasting acknowledgement of her, her father’s and of course Rusty’s commitment to Wistar, particularly for the HIV research program headed by Luis,” said Ken. “As we know, Martha and Luis developed a firm and fast relationship when she embraced and supported the programs he came to build and oversee. That it falls now to me to further this vital work is something I do not shy away from.”
“This will secure the prominence of infectious disease research at Wistar into the future – as well as honor the commitment from Martha in helping jump-start the HIV program back at its start,” said Luis. “It is fitting that as she trusted in Wistar back then, this Professorship now expands this trust and vision into the future.”
Benefits Of Endowing And Recruiting A Distinguished Professor
The most valuable assets in science are the scientists themselves, the people whose creativity, energy, intelligence and insights lead to the discoveries that fuel research progress. The Wistar Institute recruits scientists of the highest caliber who are able to choose where they want to work from among the most prestigious research institutions in the world. Furthermore, the highest recognition the Institute can bestow on a faculty member is the creation of a professorial chair, named in perpetuity in accordance with the donors wishes.
Photo by: Paul Meyer