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Philanthropist Harvey Picker Dies

Harvey Picker was a longtime donor to Smith. His $7 million gift endowed the college’s pioneering Picker Engineering Program, which is named for him and his wife, the late Jean Sovatkin Picker ’42 (New York Times obituary). The following is excerpted from an obituary submitted by the Picker family.

CAMDEN, ME—Harvey Picker, physicist, inventor, educator, businessman and philanthropist, died on March 22. He was 92.

Mr. Picker's gift of $7 million established an endowment for the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College, his wife’s alma mater, in 1999. The nation's first engineering program at a women’s college, it has become a model for attracting women to engineering.

Jean Picker, who served as an ambassador to the United Nations during the 1960s, was an active collaborator in Mr. Picker’s many interests. She died in 1990.

Mr. Picker was born in New York City in 1915. He graduated from Colgate University in 1936 and from Harvard Business School with an MBA in 1938. During that time he also studied at Oxford University.

In 1938 Mr. Picker joined Picker X-ray Company, which his father had founded two decades earlier. When war broke out in Europe, Picker X-ray, in collaboration with the Army, developed field X-ray equipment small enough to fit into three foot lockers and sturdy enough to be parachuted to wherever it was needed. At the end of the war, Mr. Picker and his father sent a check for $3 million, representing the company's profits from those field X-ray machines, to the U.S. Treasury, explaining that the family did not wish to profit from the war effort.

While in the Navy, Mr. Picker was selected to work on the secret development of radar with a team of physicists at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. After returning to civilian life, he headed Picker X-ray Company for 25 years, leading the company into such groundbreaking developments as cobalt therapy for cancer, nuclear imaging diagnostics and the use of ultrasound for oceanography, which was then adapted for medical imaging.

In 1971, Mr. Picker returned to his alma mater, Colgate University, as an adjunct faculty member. He challenged his students to examine the unintended consequences of the forces that were shaping the world they would one day control in a number of thought-provoking courses, including “The Social Control of Science and Technology” and “The Politics of Assassination.”

In 1972, Mr. Picker was asked by the faculty of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs to serve as dean, despite the fact that he had neither an advanced degree nor any professional experience in the field of international relations. The school tripled in size during his tenure.

Moving to Camden in 1982, Mr. Picker, an avid sailor, bought Wayfarer Marine, one of the largest boatyards on the East Coast. In keeping with his commitment to public service, he served on many local boards, including the Camden Personnel Board; the Camden Public Library; the Camden-Rockport Development Committee; Bay Chamber Concerts; the Penobscot Marine Museum; the Maine Maritime Museum; the Island Institute; the Midcoast Mental Health Foundation; the Midcoast Mental Health Association; the Maine Medical Assessment Foundation; and the Mid-Coast Forum in International Affairs.

At the request of then-governor Jock McKernan, he served on the Maine Health Care Finance Commission in 1989 and then on the Blue-Ribbon Commission to Overhaul the Workers’ Compensation Insurance System.

In 1987 Mr. Picker was among the founders of the Camden Conference. In 1996 he was the prime mover in the funding and construction of the Centennial Wing of the Camden Public Library. He was named Townsperson of the Year by the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce in 1995, and he was elected a Harris Fellow by the Camden Rotary Club.

In 1994 Mr. Picker took over the operations of Picker Institute, which he had founded at the suggestion of and in partnership with his wife, Jean, in 1986. A global independent nonprofit organization, Picker Institute is dedicated to advancing the principles of patient-centered care as seen “through the patient's eyes.” The institute, which is credited with having coined the phrase "patient-centered care,” also pioneered patient-satisfaction surveys comprising the systematic collection of data from hospital patients to help improve the delivery of medical services. Since then, the Picker Surveys have become a standard measure of patient care worldwide.

Mr. Picker served on many boards, among them the New York Philharmonic, Hudson Institute, Colgate University, Lenox Hill Hospital, New Rochelle Hospital, Radiological Society Research and Education Foundation. He was a member of the National Science Board and of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Throughout his life, Mr. Picker believed in the challenge of, and took great pleasure in, finding ways to empower people through education. He believed in personal responsibility, and in being answerable for the consequences to others of decisions made by people with power over others. He believed that identifying problems and solving them was the most fun a person could have other than sailing along the Maine coast on a sunny September afternoon. Finally, he believed that he had been graced with an enormous amount of luck and good fortune in his life, and he never ceased to express his gratitude for it.

Mr. Picker is survived by two daughters, Bobbi Hamill of Boston. Mass., Gale Jean Picker of Seattle, Wash.; and three grandchildren, Jean Picker Larsen, Evelyn Picker Larsen and Matthew James Mrachek.

Services will be announced at a later date. 

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