Mr. Stowers and his wife wanted researchers to focus on how genes work.
Mr. Stowers and his wife wanted researchers to focus on how genes work.
Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jim Stowers Jr., the billionaire founder of one of the nation’s leading investment management firms who gave away most of his fortune to fight disease, has died. He was 90.

The Kansas City philanthropist, whose tenacity in business was just as fierce as in his fight for stem-cell research, died Monday after a period of declining health, according to a news release issued by his namesake research firm and the investment firm he founded, American Century Investments.

Mr. Stowers was a struggling mutual fund salesman in 1958 when he founded Twentieth Century Investors Inc. with two mutual funds and $107,000 in assets. That company grew into American Century Investments, one of the nation’s leading investment management firms that, as of 2013, was managing about $141 billion.

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In 2000, Mr. Stowers and his wife, Virginia, who both successfully fought cancer, promised more than $1 billion of their fortune to create the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City. The endowment eventually grew to $2 billion.

‘‘If I make other people successful, they’ll make me successful,’’ he said in 2009. ‘‘We wanted to give something that was more valuable than money to the millions of people who made our success possible.’’

The gleaming institute has attracted world-renowned researchers and prompted civic leaders in the region to enhance collaboration between area research groups, health care organizations, universities, and business interests.

Mr. Stowers and his wife said they wanted the institute to focus on basic research into how genes work, to determine ways to alter genes to fight such ailments as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. But they faced skepticism from well-known US research institutions about whether the Kansas City area could be a major player in biomedical research and life sciences. By 2013, the institute had about 370 scientists, research associates, technicians, and support staff.

‘‘We were told that what we wanted to do couldn’t be done here,’’ Mr. Stowers told the AP in the 2009 interview. ‘‘We had a whole bunch of labs tell us that they could do a better job than us.

‘‘I had the same statements made to me when I started American Century. I just said, ‘I can prove it, I can do this.’ ’’

Mr. Stowers was born in Kansas City. He earned bachelor’s degrees in art and medicine from the University of Missouri, and was a fighter pilot during World War II.

He and wife, Virginia, with whom he had four children, said they were motivated to help find cures by their bouts with cancer. Mr. Stowers was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1987, and his wife had surgery for breast cancer in 1993.