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Philanthropist Marvelle Koffler was a champion of women’s health

By on February 15, 2020 in Articles with 0 Comments

Marvelle Koffler, who died on Jan. 14 at age 90, was a prominent patron of the arts in Toronto as well as being an active supporter of medical research. Along with her husband, Shoppers Drug Mart founder Murray Koffler, she helped establish the Toronto Outdoor Art Festival and the Koffler Centre of the Arts. A breast cancer survivor, she founded the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre at Mt. Sinai Hospital, the first medical facility in Canada to integrate detection, diagnosis, treatment, counselling and prevention of the disease. She also endowed a breast cancer research centre in Israel, at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Her involvement in science led her to found the International Weizmann Women for Science program, among other things, to encourage young women to consider careers in the field.

“In 1988 Marvelle saw untapped potential in the women and she created the first-ever Women for Science program which became international and very strong in Canada. Every year we have an event where we raise awareness and support through the Women in Science committee,” said Susan Stern, national executive director and CEO of Weizmann Canada.

Marvelle Seligman was born in Toronto on Feb. 3, 1929. Both her parents were immigrants, her father from Russia, her mother from Poland. Her father was a dressmaker and coat manufacturer with a business on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue, home to the city’s rag trade. The family spent summers on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, where she met her future husband.

A few years after graduating from Vaughan Collegiate, she married Mr. Koffler; she was 20 and he was 24. At the age of 17, he had inherited two drug stores in Toronto from his father and helped run them while he studied pharmacy. As he grew the drugstore chain into what would become Shoppers Drug Mart, Mrs. Koffler raised their five children and began engaging in philanthropy, focusing on culture and science.

“Marvelle was passionate about her work in health care, the arts and education. She sat on the boards of many charitable organizations, some devoted to Jewish causes and others benefiting national interests.” her daughter, Tiana Koffler Boyman, said.

On a visit to New York in 1960, Mrs. Koffler and her husband discovered an outdoor art show in Washington Square in Greenwich Village. When they returned home they worked to establish the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, which has grown into one of the largest such shows in the world.

In 1977 she founded the Koffler Art Gallery, in the Jewish Community Centre at Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue West. Today it has an office and exhibition space in the Artscape Youngplace in Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood.

“She wanted the gallery to be involved in the city, not just the Jewish Community,” said Mona Filip, director and curator of the Koffler Gallery. “Marvelle was always involved. The gallery’s mission is cross-cultural dialogue around issues that are pertinent today.”

The gallery’s current exhibit is by Karen Tam of Montreal, and the theme is the lives of Chinese immigrants to the city.

Her leadership led to the opening of the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1995. The multidisciplinary centre provides treatment to more than 34,000 women annually.

The Weizmann Institute of Science was another organization Mrs. Koffler was deeply involved with. Named after Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, it is devoted to pure scientific research. There the Kofflers funded the Koffler Accelerator of the Canada Centre of Nuclear Physics, and the Marvelle Koffler Program for Breast Cancer Research, as well as the Women for Science program.

“Every year, we raise awareness and support for a post-doctoral award to empower women as they pursue careers in science,” Ms. Stern said. “We bring in women scientists each year to serve as role models to these young women. The Women for Science program is a result of Marvelle’s idea back in 1988. She was an amazing ambassador and an inspiring role model.”

The Kofflers were married for 67 years, until Mr. Koffler’s death in 2017. The couple travelled extensively, in particular to Israel and Europe. They also skied in western Canada and Sun Valley, Idaho. In 1969 they bought a farm at Jokers Hill, near Newmarket, north of Toronto. They spent time as a family there and also used the site to host equestrian and charity events. In 1995 they donated the 348-hectare property to the University of Toronto to be used for ecological and scientific research. It is known as the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill.

“The gift made the university one of the largest landowners on the Oak Ridges Moraine and steward of a site of regional, provincial and national significance,” the facility’s website reads.

Mrs. Koffler was named a member of the Order of Ontario in 1998, in the category of philanthropy. She leaves her children, Leon, Theo, Tom, Adam and Tiana; 27 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

“My parents lived full lives with a strong commitment to the betterment of humankind,” Ms. Koffler Boyman said. “They were part of a progressive generation who passionately believed in positive change through the arts and science.”

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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