By turns a distiller, a lawyer, and an extremely successful business entrepreneur, Zanvyl Krieger made his name best known as an extraordinary philanthropist. His greatest single gift was a $50 million challenge grant, made in 1992, to the School of Arts and Sciences of the Johns Hopkins University. The gift is one of the largest ever directed exclusively to a U.S. school or college of arts and sciences, the division of a university that focuses on the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. To pay fitting tribute, Hopkins renamed its core institution, so that it is now the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
Krieger was a life-long Baltimorean with committed civic ties. He played an ownership role in both the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Colts. His charitable concerns included the Krieger Children’s Eye Center at Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a world-renowned clinic for children with disabilities; and the Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus.
Zanvyl Krieger was born in 1906, the last of Herman and Bettie Farber Krieger’s eight children. His father died when Zanvyl was only four, but the family’s fortunes had been already established. The Kriegers owned the Baltimore brewery that made Gunther Beer. They also distilled rye whiskey at a time when rye was a popular drink among Americans.
After completing high school at Baltimore City College, Krieger enrolled at Johns Hopkins, from which he received a degree in political science in 1928. He then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1931. Upon returning to Baltimore, he went to work for the law firm of Weinberg and Sweeten.
With his family’s support, Krieger began a career in real estate development. During World War II, he worked as a lawyer in the Army Air Corps, and rose to the rank of major. After the war, he met his future wife, Isabelle Lowenthal, at a resort in New York State’s Catskills. They were married in 1947.
In 1964, he became the key investor in a startup company called U.S. Surgical, which owned the rights to a method for closing surgical incisions without cloth fiber stitches. With Krieger’s backing, the surgical staple was born. By the early 1990s, at the time of Krieger’s $50 million gift to Hopkins, U.S. Surgical sold $500 million worth of surgical staples a year and controlled 75 percent of the market. In the meantime, the company had also become a pioneer in the field of laparoscopic surgical instruments. This sagacious investment allowed Krieger to move from civic involvement to epic philanthropy.
In large measure, his close friendship with University President Milton Eisenhower was a motivating factor in Krieger’s gift to the School. An important aspect of his $50 million gift was the provision for the endowment of 10 Eisenhower-Krieger Professorships across the 20-plus disciplines represented in the Krieger School.
In 1992, Krieger was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the University.
Zanvyl Krieger died on September 15, 2000, at the age of 94.