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San Diego philanthropist Joan Jacobs dies at age 91


Thomas Fudge / Science and Technology Reporter


Bennett Lacy / Producer

Published May 7, 2024 at 5:12 PM PDT

The donations were generous, but that’s an understatement. $120 million to the San Diego Symphony. A pledge of $100 million to the Salk Institute. More than $250 million in donations to UC San Diego.

Joan and Irwin Jacobs, the co-founder of Qualcomm, have made a huge financial impact on many San Diego schools and nonprofits. And now one half of that philanthropic team is gone.

Joan Jacobs died of heart failure on Monday. She was 91 years old. She and her husband donated hundreds of millions of dollars, spread among many San Diego organizations, including KPBS.

The former chief science officer at the Salk Institute, Martin Hetzer, called the Jacobs’ gift to Salk transformative.

“Fifty years from now people will look at this moment and will recognize this as a significant moment in our history. This is a long-lasting legacy and we are eternally grateful,” Hetzer said.

Joan and Irwin Jacobs stand proudly behind a model of the center that will bear their name at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Nov. 12, 2021

Kitty Alvarado



Joan and Irwin Jacobs stand proudly behind a model of the center that will bear their name at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Nov. 12, 2021

Joan Klein, the name she was born with, grew up in New York City and got her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, where she met her future husband. Joan and Irwin Jacobs moved to San Diego in 1966, where Irwin was a founding member of UC San Diego’s engineering department.

Irwin called it an exciting opportunity. Joan said in a UCSD video production she was struck by the energy that went into building the new campus.

“When we first came, there was Urey Hall and the next day I went to see it, the grass was already out there and the next day I went the wall was already built. And I was just totally amazed by the speed at which things happened in California,” Joan Jacobs said.

Following his academic career Irwin Jacobs founded Qualcomm in 1985 and retired from the board in 2012. For the past couple of decades, he and Joan have spent lots of time giving away their fortune.

The marketing department at KPBS said the Jacobs have donated more than $14 million to the public broadcasting station over the years. KPBS leadership offered their condolences to the family.

“Joan and Irwin’s generosity to KPBS is by extension a commitment to the people of San Diego County to invest in our collective future. They have been our partners and supporters in making a transformational change in how we fulfill our public service mission,” said KPBS general manager Deanna Mackey.

Family members mourning Joan’s death include her husband, her four sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Granddaughter Sara Jacobs is a Democratic congresswoman representing San Diego’s 51st District.

“She pushed me and everyone around her to be the best versions of themselves,” Sara Jacobs said in a statement, following her grandma’s death. “She showed me that I could be feminine and win an argument, I could be a wife and mother and grandmother, and also a leader.”

A journalist with 30 years of experience, Tom covers science and technology stories for KPBS’ platforms. He has received recognition for his outstanding work in hosting and public affairs reporting from the Unity Awards, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, and the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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