A graduate of the School of Medicine and an avid art collector, Dr. Joanne Jepson spent most of her life in California but her attachment to McGill ran deep. Her legacy gift builds on a lifetime of generosity to the University.


Joanne Jepson, MDCM’59, never did anything halfway. She became an oncologist at a time when few women had careers, let alone in medicine, and before the medical advances that have improved cancer survival rates.


Dr. Jepson had a fierce inquisitiveness about the world, and a passion for both art and science that intersected to the benefit of both. Although she lived most of her 91 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Jepson never forgot the happy years she spent at McGill.


As a medical student in the late 1950s, she was awarded – three times – a scholarship established by the estate of Helen Richmond Young Reid, BA 1889, LLD 1921, a Montreal social reformer who was in the first class of women admitted to the University. Later, Dr. Jepson joined McGill’s faculty as an assistant professor of research medicine from 1963 to 1970.


Over the past decade, she lavished the McGill community with the fruits of her twin passions, first donating the very best of her art collection and then, upon her death in 2022, a bequest in her will. That gift will establish a new medical professorship to strengthen McGill’s contribution to the global fight against infectious diseases, and create multiple science fellowships for Indigenous students.


“It was tremendously forward-thinking of Dr. Jepson to direct such a generous share of her estate to address the challenges faced in global health and infectious diseases,” says Dr. Lesley Fellows, BSc’90, MDCM’96, MedResident’01, Vice-President (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. “The new professorship is a much-needed contribution that will support McGill’s important research in this field, with a direct positive impact on vulnerable populations.”


The Joanne Hope Jepson M.D. Professorship in Infectious Disease, Global Medicine Studies will allow the Faculty to support a clinician-scientist who will advance research or clinical care of infectious diseases in a global health context.


Motivated by the Indigenous works she loved to collect, Dr. Jepson also invested in people who advance Indigenous wisdom and aid in reconciliation. Thanks to her generosity, the Dr. Joanne Jepson Fellowship will be awarded to Canadian Indigenous graduate students in medicine and health sciences, dentistry, engineering, agriculture or the sciences.


Kachina dolls
Kachina dolls from the Jepson Collection in the McGill Visual Arts Collection


“The initiatives created through Dr. Jepson’s bequest are testament to the legacy of someone who really cared about people, the world and issues relevant to McGill and Canada – and making the biggest difference wherever possible,” says Marc Weinstein, Vice-President, University Advancement. “She was very interested in fairness and in creating access to health among different communities.”


An accomplished sketch artist, Dr. Jepson continued to draw up to the very end of her life. And anyone who has visited McGill has likely encountered the fruits of her enormous generosity to the university she adored: over 300 works of art collected from galleries and from artists directly on her travels around the world, spread across 90 buildings. These include Indigenous sculptures, masks, and baskets; contemporary and historical Japanese prints; and art from Oceania.


Leaning on her training as a scientist, she researched potential art acquisitions rigorously, often learning more about them than the experts.


“She wasn’t the kind of collector who looked for the chestnuts that everyone wants,” says Gwendolyn Owens, director of the McGill Visual Arts Collection, who got to know and greatly admire Dr. Jepson over the years. “If you’re diagnosing a patient, you have to look carefully, and she brought that rigor to her collecting. Every piece has a story.”


Both Weinstein and Owens visited Dr. Jepson in San Francisco during her later years. Owens was not surprised to find a house full of gorgeous art and Dr. Jepson, though long retired, still engaged in the world – listening to podcasts and making connections on LinkedIn.


“Her mind just carried her places,” recalls her cousin, Donna Pace of San Francisco. “She had to go and find out about them.”


And there were the students. She loved helping them learn, sharing her passion for art and medicine with them. “What I saw right away was this interest in connecting with students,” says Owens, who arranged for interns to research and present items from the collection to Dr. Jepson on a memorable 2014 visit to McGill.


Even in her final months, she enjoyed interactions with medical students and residents in the hospital, recalls Donna Pace’s husband, David.


“She so enjoyed the students coming into her room, asking questions and watching them tend to her,” he says. “That really made her happy and she showed so much patience for them.”


In retirement, Dr. Jepson grew especially close to the Pace family. Donna and David kept a spare bedroom for her and Willow, her bichon frisé, and the family had long conversations over breakfast at the kitchen table.


“She just had the best stories, and we loved her so much,” says Donna Pace. “She kind of filled a void that we both had from not having parents anymore. She never had children of her own but we considered her more of our mom.


“She had every reason in the world to blow her horn; her life was so rich in so many ways, but she was not a boastful woman at all.”


As her health declined and she was no longer able to write emails, Dr. Jepson and Gwendolyn Owens chatted occasionally on the phone. Their last conversation was during and about the pandemic – showing a mind not yet ready to turn away from the complexities and difficulties of the world.


“I miss her,” says Owens. “She was always learning. And I think she remembered her time at McGill in a very fun way. Over time I’ve noticed as collectors get older they look back on their lives and think about the happy times, and I think McGill must have been a very happy time for her.”


This article originally appeared in A passion for art and science (mcgill.ca).