Center's patron on hand for fete

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Yes, it’s that David H. Koch.

The namesake of MIT’s new cancer center is the billionaire business titan and friend to conservative causes whose identity was invoked by a prankster last week in a call to the embattled governor of Wisconsin.

Koch, whose crusade for free-market, small-government politics led him in 1980 to run for vice president on the Libertarian Party’s ticket, will be on MIT’s campus today to mark two other passions: cancer research and his alma mater.

A survivor of prostate cancer — he was diagnosed in 1992 and continues to receive treatment — Koch lent his name and $140 million of his fortune to the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. He is in Cambridge to celebrate the opening of its new home.

In a wide-ranging, 20-minute interview yesterday, Koch, a navy blue suit hanging loose from his lanky frame, said his political activities and philanthropic causes represent separate aspects of his life.

“The way I look at it is, cancer research is absolutely nonpartisan,’’ Koch said. “Cancer is very democratic in the sense that it attacks people regardless of their race, their gender, their national background, or their political persuasions.’’

When he was diagnosed with cancer — and as he watched each of his three brothers be diagnosed with the same disease — Koch said it had “a staggering impact.’’

“All of us tend to be sort of arrogant and cocky about our bodies,’’ he said. “We think our bodies are invulnerable. When our bodies are violated by this horrible disease of cancer, we’re in total shock because it’s so unexpected.’’

Koch estimates that his foundation has made gifts or pledges totaling $750 million. The money has supported cultural powerhouses such as Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian. But it is the donations to cancer research, and to MIT’s program in particular, that appear to give him the greatest satisfaction.

In the interview, Koch repeatedly referred to various programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the world’s greatest. He earned degrees in chemical engineering from MIT, where he held the single-game scoring record in basketball (41 points against Middlebury College in 1962) for more than four decades. He still occasionally attends games.

In the salons of business and politics, Koch and his brother Charles have cut a broad, sometimes polarizing swath. A lengthy New Yorker article in August, for example, asserted that the Koch brothers had declared war on the Obama administration. In a gentler piece last year in New York magazine, David Koch asserts that the brothers’ political influence is exaggerated.

But it was not until last week that David Koch’s name became a regular staple of cable new channels and talk radio. That’s because a blogger from New York called Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, embroiled in an epic dispute with public unions, and portrayed himself as Koch. In the conversation, the fake Koch egged on the recently elected governor. An activist group that Koch backs, Americans for Prosperity, had announced it was buying advertising to support Walker in his fight with unions.

In yesterday’s interview, the real Koch said he had no relationship with the governor and didn’t directly support him. Koch said he regarded the caller’s actions as identity theft. He seemed both amused and bemused.

“Right now, if I make a call to some important person and say my name is David Koch, they’re probably going to reject the call, thinking I’m another fraudster.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at

David H. Koch

■ Executive vice president of Koch Industries Inc., a conglomerate with major interests in energy, chemicals, ranching, and other industries; employs 70,000 with a presence in 60 countries; brands include Stainmaster carpet, Lycra fiber, and Quilted Northern tissue; ranked as nation’s second-largest private company by Forbes, which in February estimated its annual revenues as $100 billion.

■ Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from MIT.

■ Koch has pledged or contributed more than $750 million, focused on cancer research, medical centers, educational institutions, and arts and cultural institutions, including Lincoln Center in New York.

■ Contributed $140 million toward cancer research at MIT, with $100 million dedicated to the new home of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. Other MIT contributions led to Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice and Koch Biology Building.

■ Active in public policy institutes such as the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation that champion limited government and free markets.

■ Ran for vice president in 1980 on the Libertarian Party ticket.

■ Major supporter of Republican Party candidates.

SOURCES: MIT, Koch Industries Inc., David H. Koch.