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A Tale of Two Sisters … and their Family’s Endowed Gifts

When a fund was established recently to create the Patricia Shoer Goldman-Rakic ’59 Professorship, endowing a named chair for a faculty member who teaches and conducts research in Vassar’s Neuroscience and Behavior program, it served as a long-overdue tribute. Goldman-Rakic was renowned for her pioneering research on the prefrontal cortex of the brain and its relationship to working memory. Using a multidisciplinary approach, her work, short-listed for the Nobel Prize, has aided fellow scientists in better understanding schizophrenia, ADHD, cerebral palsy, dementia, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Patricia Shoer Goldman-Rakic ’59Photo: VQ archives

Goldman-Rakic’s story is amazing enough, but even more astounding when connected to the donor who established the endowment fund. That’s because her twin sister, Ruth Shoer Rappaport ’59, was also a Vassar graduate—and a trailblazing pioneer in the sciences. The first woman hired as a scientist by Wyeth Laboratories, Rappaport rose to the position of Senior Director of Clinical Immunology and Virology, conducting research that helped to develop vaccines to treat influenza, human rotavirus, adenovirus and HIV, and to protect against E. coli and cholera.

In an article about her younger sister, Rappaport, born eight minutes before Goldman-Rakic, wrote, “In fact, our family was quite ordinary.” In fact, all three daughters of immigrants from eastern Europe earned doctorates in science and became leaders in their fields at a time when women were not always welcome. (A third sister, Linda—not a Vassar graduate—founded List Laboratories.)

Ruth Shoer Rappaport ’59Photo: Courtesy of Larry Shoer

“Ruth and Pattie both were scientists, and for women of their generation there were huge additional impediments, but that did not stop them,” says Larry Shoer, a cousin of the sisters. “They had powerful intellects, but did not have the ego you might associate with that.  They were determined to accomplish things. Ruth was 110 pounds soaking wet, but you underestimated this woman at your considerable peril.”  Indeed, Rappaport frequently inspired comparisons with another highly accomplished Ruth, with some family members calling her “our own RBG.”

 “They faced similar obstacles,” adds another cousin, Mark Feffer, “but Pattie was the more buttoned-down. Ruth had less patience, and was a free bohemian spirit.” Despite those personality differences, the twins were extraordinarily close, talking on the phone every day.

Their bond was cut short by Goldman-Rakic’s tragic and sudden death in a hit-and-run accident in 2003. In her eulogy, Rappaport spoke of the twins’ years together at Vassar, remembering that her sister, who was known for multitasking and not being afraid to try new things, had picked Ferry House as a place to live. “She chose to join the only cooperative housing arrangement on campus where, in addition to their studies, about 25 students shared jointly in responsibilities for cooking and other household chores; while hundreds of other students, including myself, were housed in regular dormitories without such responsibilities,” she said.

Facing life without the person she called her “other half,” Rappaport nevertheless persevered not only in her work but also, increasingly, her philanthropy. “She was a relentlessly busy woman, and happy in those activities,” says her cousin Larry Shoer. Passionate about the arts, she remained intensely interested in the world right up until her own passing in April of last year.

“When she was in the hospital, in her last couple of days, there were lots of nurses, PAs, and doctors, hanging around her room—all of them women,” Feffer recalls. “They had all heard she was on the Wyeth team for the rotavirus vaccine.” Shoer adds, “They recognized that this woman was a true pioneer. She’d helped blaze the trail that allowed them to pursue their own careers as physicians and students of science.”

The legacy of both sisters will continue at Vassar with the Goldman-Rakic Professorship, and also with the Dr. Ruth Shoer Rappaport '59 Scholarship Fund for students majoring in science.  “This is truly Ruthie,” says Shoer. “Liberal arts colleges promote the wholeness of the person they educate. They are wonderful institutions for developing expertise, and helping a person understand how they fit into the larger world. She always saw the larger context.”


The Neuroscience and Behavior program will celebrate its 50-year anniversary in 2021-22. Stay tuned for news about the commemorations.