Joan Klein Jacobs ’54, a dedicated alumna of the College of Human Ecology and global philanthropist who believed strongly in the power of education and the arts to transform lives, died May 6 in San Diego. She was 91.

Known for her integrity, warmth and generous spirit, Joan served Cornell for nearly two decades as a presidential councillor, the university’s highest alumni honor. She and her husband of 69 years, Irwin M. Jacobs ’54, BEE ’56, founding chairman and CEO emeritus of Qualcomm, have been lifelong philanthropists, championing education, health care, the arts and other causes.

“Joan Jacobs, along with her husband, Irwin, played a pivotal role in helping establish Cornell Tech as a premier institution for driving innovation and economic development, and remained deeply involved for decades in supporting students, faculty and innovative programs on the Ithaca campus,” President Martha E. Pollack said. “As a trusted adviser and friend to several Cornell presidents and one of the university’s most prolific philanthropists, she has left a lasting impact on Cornell, and on the lives of generations of Cornellians.”

As devoted benefactors of the university, the Jacobses have been strong advocates for their colleges, naming scholarships, fellowships and professorships in the College of Human Ecology and Cornell Engineering.

Their most transformational gift came in 2013, when they gave $133 million to Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to create the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, a centerpiece of Cornell Tech. In making the commitment, they noted its special significance in allowing them to give back to their alma mater and to New York City – Joan’s hometown.

Since its founding, the Jacobs Institute has incubated 47 new startup companies, which have filed nearly 75 patent applications and employ more than 280 people in New York City.

Jacobs was born Jan. 17, 1933 in New York City, where she attended the Barnard School for Girls. She and Irwin met as sophomores at Cornell on a blind date and married in 1954, just after Joan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from the College of Human Ecology. Trained as a dietician, she worked for Groton Central Schools while Irwin continued his studies at Cornell.

In 1956, they moved to Boston, where Joan worked at Boston Lying-in Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) while Irwin completed his Sc.D. and joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1966, the couple and their four sons moved to California when Irwin accepted a position at the University of California, San Diego, later founding Linkabit and Qualcomm. The Jacobses became leading members of the San Diego community, helping transform educational, health, and cultural organizations and institutions throughout the area. In 2015, she received the College of Human Ecology’s most distinguished alumni honor, the Helen Bull Vandervort Award, in recognition of her work and achievements.

The Jacobses’ dedication to community service, they said, sprang from growing up in homes that honored the Jewish obligation of tzedakah – the Hebrew word for philanthropy and charity.

“Our families were philanthropic, but on a very different level,” Joan Jacobs said in a 2017 interview. “They gave to the local synagogue, but not in any major way. We both came from very humble homes. We’re very fortunate to be able to do what we’re doing now.”

Joan Jacobs donated to Cornell nearly every year since her first gift to the annual fund in 1958. Seeking to create opportunities to make education more accessible, she and Irwin established the Joan Klein Jacobs ’54 Cornell Tradition Fellowship in 1999 to provide annual support for undergraduate students in the College of Human Ecology. In 2014, they made a $10 million gift to the college – at the time, the largest gift in its history – to advance faculty renewal with the Joan K. and Irwin M. Jacobs Professorship and Joan K. and Irwin M. Jacobs Graduate Fellowship, while also sponsoring a fundraising challenge that resulted in four more endowed professorships for the college.

The Jacobses likewise established the Irwin M. and Joan K. Jacobs Scholars and Fellows Programs in Cornell Engineering with a $30 million commitment in 2006; they’d created the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Professorship in Electrical and Computer Engineering several years earlier. The programs have supported the educations and aspirations of more than 500 students – through more than 1,300 awards – over the last two decades.

Their most recent gift came in 2023, when they again committed $10 million to the College of Human Ecology. The gift benefits the college’s new Center for Precision Nutrition and Health, endowing its executive directorship, two postdoctoral fellowships and funds to advance faculty innovation and student experiential learning – all named in honor of Joan.

The Jacobses’ giving places them among the world’s most generous philanthropists. In 2018, they were among the first to join Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge initiative, which calls upon individuals of considerable means to donate the majority of their wealth during their lifetimes, in order to have an impact on today’s most pressing needs and challenges.

The couple, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs, were honored as the 2008 recipients of the Cornell Hillel Tanner Prize, which celebrates service to the Jewish people and to Cornell. The same year, she received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts, and in 2015, she and Irwin were honored with the prestigious Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

Joan Jacobs is survived by Irwin, their four sons, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.