Jan and Marica Vilcek’s remarkable immigrant story provides the inspiration for their foundation’s annual awards honoring young foreign-born scientists, artists, and designers.
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Marica and Jan Vilcek, at the Vilcek Foundation offices in New York City. The foundation awards eight prizes a year to foreign-born Americans: four in biomedical science and four in the arts. This year, for the first time, the arts category honored design.
Portrait by Ross Mantle
Jan Vilcek, the 80-year-old microbiologist and philanthropist, works on East 73rd Street in Manhattan, three blocks and 4,300 miles away from his home. His current abode is an elegant apartment on Fifth Avenue filled with the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and other American masters, but his homeland is Slovakia, which he escaped 50 years ago.
Vilcek is 5’5” and neat, with silver hair and earnest blue eyes. Today, he wears a crisp pink dress shirt under a burgundy sweater vest in anticipation of Valentine’s Day. He is humble and precise, neither cold nor effusive. His Slovakian accent is as faint as his smile, both of which contain and reveal the unfathomable story of a displaced person who led a miraculous life far from home, and who is now trying to make miracles for other immigrants.
With more than 45 patents to his name, Vilcek is also the coinventor of Remicade. If medicines were hit records, then that anti-inflammatory drug would be Michael Jackson’s Thriller—a hugely popular classic that brings in $8 billion a year. For his scientific research, his compassion for those both similar and different from him, and his philanthropy that enriches the United States, President Barack Obama awarded him the 2013 National Medal of Technology and Innovation. “The medal is in a drawer,” Vilcek says modestly. “It’s not easily framed—it’s on a ribbon.”
In his ninth decade, he has the stamina of his twenty-something staffers. He teaches at New York University ( NYU), publishes research in biomedical journals, and runs the same lab at NYU’s Langone Medical Center that he established in 1965. He is also, with his wife of 52 years—the art historian Marica Vilcek—a humanitarian of uncommon vision and generosity. In 2000, he set aside a percentage of his future Remicade royalties to start the Vilcek Foundation, which supports the work of scientists and artists who have resettled in the United States. “They have a broad sense of rewarding the young people who try new things in science and the arts and who had the opportunity to leave their own country to discover their own identity,” says his friend Christo, the environmental artist who fled Bulgaria in 1956.
The foundation awarded eight prizes this year to foreign-born Americans: four in biomedical science and four in the arts (two Vilcek Prizes of $100,000 each; six Creative Promise prizes of $35,000 each). Whereas the science category is always biomedicine, the arts category changes yearly. The first year, 2006, it was fine arts, followed by architecture, and then classical music, filmmaking, cooking, literature, dance, and contemporary music. This year’s category is design.
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