PEABODY – Ruth Shoer Rappaport, a Jewish woman from Peabody who went on to become a groundbreaking vaccine researcher, has left more than $1 million to Peabody Veterans Memorial High, from which she graduated in 1955, Superintendent Josh Vadala announced to the School Committee late last month.
Rappaport died on April 28 at age 83 in Philadelphia.
On Oct. 27, the school board voted unanimously to accept the gift.
“I think she always thought of herself as a Peabody girl,” said Rappaport’s cousin, Mark Feffer, who grew up in Swampscott and who now lives north of Philadelphia. He wrote Rappaport’s eulogy, describing her as someone who valued education, science, music, and the arts.
Rappaport was the first woman hired as a scientist by Wyeth Laboratories, where she worked for four decades.
“As a scientist and a woman, the challenges she set for herself could not have been higher,” said Larry Shoer, her first cousin and her estate’s executor, in a letter to the school district. “Ruth valued truth, precision, elegance, and excellence in her own scientific endeavors, her participation in the arts, and in the causes she supported.”
The bequest will create a trust called the Irving and Jennie Pearl Shoer Family Endowment in the name of Rappaport’s parents. Proceeds will pay for 14 karat gold George Peabody Medals for the class’s top academic achieving students to be awarded at graduation. In recognition of Rapport’s love of music and the arts, additional income will support the school’s music program and scholarships.
“This is the most amazing and incredible donation that we’ve ever received,” said School Committee member Brandi Carpenter during the meeting, which was carried on local Peabody TV.
Rappaport’s research contributed to the development of vaccines to treat “influenza, human rotavirus, adenovirus and HIV, and protect against E. coli and cholera,” according to her obituary. She published nearly 60 scientific papers before retiring as senior director of clinical immunology and virology at Wyeth.
“How ironic that right now we are accepting this incredibly large donation from a brilliant woman who contributed to curing and coming up with vaccines. Oh, boy, could we use her, right now, not just her money, but her,” Carpenter said.
Rappaport came from a modest Peabody family, but she and her two sisters were able to break gender barriers and achieve success in the sciences.
She was the eldest of the three, including her twin sister by eight minutes, the late Dr. Patricia “Pattie” Shoer Goldman-Rakic. Her younger sister was the late Dr. Linda Shoer, who founded and was president of the California biotech firm List Laboratories. Dr. Goldman-Rakic was a pioneering neuroscientist.
Rappaport was buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Peabody next to her sister, Linda, about 20 feet from her parents, Feffer said.
“The Jewish connection, where that was really demonstrated was in how she lived her life,” said Larry Shoer. “She was a person who was modest in many regards. She was interesting, in that there is a strong tradition of education in the Jewish faith, that was historically only available to boys and men, but Ruth and her siblings were powerful intellects and they were not people to be denied.”
After graduating from Peabody High, Rappaport attended Vassar College, which was all-female at the time, and graduated in 1959.
She went on to earn a doctorate from Yale University in 1967.
Rappaport’s parents owned a diner, a food provisioning business, and a butcher shop in Peabody. Rappaport’s mother, Jennie, was born in Russia and was a wonderful cook. Jewish cuisine was central to the holidays, Larry Shoer said.
Shoer also noted Rappaport weighed 100 pounds and stood 5 feet tall, but despite her small stature, she was a force to be reckoned with.
“You would ignore her at your own peril,” he said.
Feffer, who lives about 40 minutes away from where his cousin lived, said Rappaport was not religious, but she would come over for Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
“Even though she wasn’t practicing Judaism, she identified as Jewish,” Feffer said, adding that “she lived a Jewish life.” He recalled that for a number of years, he would go to her house for Rosh Hashanah and her mother, his aunt Jennie, would be there.
“Ruth is somebody, although she spend her adult life away from Peabody, she never forgot her roots,” Shoer said.