founded in 1910

The Otho S. A. Sprague Memorial Institute


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The First 100 Years - link to our Centennial Publication


The Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial Institute was incorporated in June 1910 to implement the bequest of one of Chicago’s leading businessmen. Since its first Board Meeting in 1911, it has stayed true to its founder’s intent, provided a cost-effective model of philanthropic management while at the same time exemplifying how focused, mid-sized foundations can make a difference.

Mr. Sprague was active in a variety of civic initiatives, including the famed Burnham Plan of 1909 which melded concepts of the city beautiful movement with concerns for health, education and civil society into a template that is equally valid a century later. Because of his own health problems, Otho Sprague understood the need for better treatment, practitioner training and research. He recognized that not all existing healthcare and health education institutions were equal and set his philanthropy on a bold course to improve conditions. By creating one of the nation’s earliest foundations, he was a pioneer in re-distributing personal wealth, as well as a visionary investor in medical research and wellness promotion.

The Institute’s early program of research focused on cancer, the effects of chemotherapy on tuberculosis, industrial diseases and the metabolism of carbohydrates affecting diabetes. Early researchers pioneered the use of insulin to control diabetes, performed lung surgeries to stem the effect of cigarettes on lung cancer, and studied environmental factors, like coal dust, for their impact on health. In 1913, mental diseases – specifically chemical treatments of dementia praecox (schizophrenia) and allied conditions were added to the research program.

By 1915, The Institute supported a staff of 20. The scientific staff and their families were provided with benefits and pensions, in addition to challenging research opportunities. Institute records are full of publication titles, successful and failed research projects and anecdotes about the program. Among those highlighted from the early years were:

  • Dr. Rollin T. Woodyatt became an international expert on diabetes and was actively involved in the trials of insulin.
  • Maud Slye, an Institute researcher at the University of Chicago was hailed for her 38 years of work in breeding mice used in liver tumor and cancer research. She autopsied 150,000 mice during her career!
  • Sprague Investigators, Drs. George and Gladys Dick began studying treatments for polio. During their effort, they discovered the cause of scarlet fever, a scourge of their time.
  • Dr. Henry Helmholz became a renowned pediatrician and founded the Pediatric Section at the Mayo Clinic.
  • Dr. Evarts Graham was among the first to note the relationship of lung cancer to cigarettes.
  • Dr. Henry Corper became the area’s foremost investigator of tuberculosis, a disease that he contracted, but continued to research.

For more than a century, The Institute's self-perpetuating volunteer Board always has included the City’s health and civic leaders whose fiscal prudence and programmatic vision have maintained it as a philanthropy attuned to current needs, while staying true to the founder’s intent ...investigation of the causes of disease and the prevention and relief of human suffering in the City of Chicago.

With assets of approximately $41million, the foundation makes grants of about $1.3 million annually. There is no office, only a post office box. There is no staff, only a part time consulting Executive Director. There is no check book - grants are paid directly from assets under management by two outside advisors. With low overhead, the foundation’s resources are applied to grantmaking initiatives. The pro-active grant program seeks to identify issues that are under funded and can benefit from interdisciplinary approaches.

In 1995, The Institute created the Chicago Asthma Initiative, funding a diverse group of researchers, providers, community and patient initiatives to highlight the growing health problem, collect data, apply innovative solutions and share outcomes. Since then, grantees have networked, tracked problems and progress, trained and re-trained providers, and empowered patients to better manage their disease.

In 2002, The Institute re-focused its grantmaking energies on obesity prevention.  It created CLOCC, The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children.  Based at Ann and Robert Lurie Children's Hospital, this network includes more than 3,000 individual and organizational representatives dedicated to addressing this problem. CLOCC has become a globally recognized model.  Its evidence based approach has resulted in numerous legislative and public policy changes; generated new clinical best practices; and empowered communities and families to address the epidemic in culturally appropriate ways.  Longitudinal research shows obesity rates in pre-kindergarteners has been reduced by 2 percentage points due to CLOCC's efforts. 

The Institute's newer initiatives include: 

The Center for Housing and Health is building a model to support hospitals and other nonprofits in diagnosing those with behavioral health issues and utilizing a network of providers to transition them to supportive housing. As demand swells, the group will work to create new housing units across the City.

The Oral Health Forum (OHF) links health professionals, government, nonprofit, corporate and community representatives to improve oral health programs and services for all Chicago residents through education, assessment, policy/program development and collaboration.  A Case Management pilot helps children with significant oral disease find the clinical help they require.

Chicago Health Atlas aggregates municipal, state and federal data along with information from Chicago-area hospitals and nonprofits on useful open-source maps that easily explain health and wellness patterns in Chicago's 77 community areas. 

A grant to the Northwestern Medical Group Transitional Care Clinic designed a more effective way to diagnose emergency department patients with behavioral health issues, stabilize them and place them in a community-based health home while supporting the healthcare team in those clinics.

The Partnership for a Connected Illinois helped FQHCs introduce tele-behavioral health in their school-based clinics to address the mental health needs of students.

The Chicagoland Hospital Collaborative brings together 33 hospitals to share perspectives identified in their individual Community  Health Needs Assessments and translate those findings into action plans to improve the health of the neighborhoods they serve. The effort is coordinated by the Illinois Public Health Insitute and the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Grants supporting Pathway Programs, curricula and training for Counselors and Advisors, Mentoring Initiatives and research in an effort to increase the number of Black and Latino men entering and graduating from medical and dental schools. 

Support of two initiatives of the Greater Chicago Food Depository that will efficiently provide medically tailored meals to those in need.

United Way of Metropolitan Chicago is coordinating the launch of a 211 system for the Chicago area with Institute support.

Additional information about The Institute's history and programs can be obtained by clicking on the Link at the top of this page.