University doctor helps fund diabetes research

With $10 in her pocket, Sonja Zuckerman arrived in the United States as a refugee from Cairo, Egypt more than 50 years ago. Working in cities such as New York, Chicago and Miami, Zuckerman became a leading philanthropist for charitable causes.

Dr. Camillo Ricordi’s family is legendary in Italy as the country’s most prestigious music publishers. When young Camillo broke from the mold and went to medical school, he was jokingly referred to as the black sheep of the family.

Zuckerman and Ricordi’s backgrounds could not be more different, but they have found a common goal: finding a cure for diabetes. That union, formed at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has helped raise millions of dollars for an ambitious quest to eradicate the disease.

Zuckerman is the fundraiser whose Diabetes Research Institute Foundation hosts annual balls to raise money for research. Ricordi is the medical expert who puts that fundraising to use through the Diabetes Research Institute, which targets a $130 billion-a-year industry.

In the 36 years since the Foundation was started by a small group of parents with diabetic children, more than $30 million has been raised for a research and education institute built at Jackson Memorial Hospital in concert with UM.

The Institute boasts a staff of researchers, educators, dieticians and psychologists. Patients and their families can attend courses to help cope with the everyday struggles of the disease and are taught preventative measures to help ward off the serious complications later in life.

“I would not have been able to implement my vision without the Foundation,” Ricordi said.

Both groups have come a long way. The Foundation’s pioneers remember what it was like in 1971 to only have $1,500 in the bank, a single scientist and one technician. They recall their fight to raise the $50,000 necessary to keep the program they started to aid their sick children.

“I still can’t believe this all happened,” recalls Barbara Singer, an original member whose daughter was diagnosed with diabetes at age two. “I feel so lucky we have had this much success.”

She credits much of the group’s progress to Zuckerman, describing her as articulate, funny and “one tough cookie.”

The sixth floor conference room at the Diabetes Institute bears the name of Zuckerman and her late husband, Harry Zuckerman. She is Life Chairman of the Love and Hope Ball, an event that premiered on Feb. 28, 1974 to catapult diabetes into the community conscience. The ball has been an annual February event ever since the first 1,000 attendees entered the old Diplomat Hotel that winter evening.

Not a single theme has been repeated twice. Many years ago, the organizers hosted an ocean-themed evening to represent the tropical setting of Miami.

Sand from beaches sat underneath tables, with centerpieces of glass bowls housing swimming goldfish.

“I remember people walking out in their evening clothes carrying the fish,” Zuckerman said, laughing, but knowing that the creative touches help bring in vital fundraising dollars for the disease.

“When someone hurts, we all hurt,” Singer said. “And when someone celebrates, we all celebrate.”

Rachel Hollander may be contacted at