As Joel Smilow ’54 stood at the podium during a press conference Wednesday to speak about a donation he made recently to the Yale-New Haven Hospital — the largest gift the hospital has ever received — he said he has been brought to tears by cancer twice this week.

The first time, he found out that the son of a friend from business school had died from cancer. The second time — yesterday at the presentation — he broke down after hearing a cancer survivor tell his story.

In the hospital’s East Pavilion cafeteria, University President Richard Levin and Yale-New Haven Hospital CEO Marna Borgstrom EPH ’79 announced Wednesday that the Y-NH Cancer Center will be named in honor of Smilow — a former chair, CEO and president of Playtex Products who made a “major gift” to the hospital to help fund the $467-million construction of its cancer research center, which began in the fall of 2006.

A representative from the hospital communications department said that at Smilow’s request, he could not disclose the exact size of the gift, which will fund the newly named Smilow Cancer Hospital. Once completed, SCH will be the only cancer center in the country that will incorporate all aspects of cancer patient care, including both in-patient and out-patient care, as well as research facilities. Borgstrom said.

The SCH is a partnership between the Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Yale Medical School. Borgstrom said the donation will be pivotal in helping the collaboration move forward.

“We are thrilled to have a gift of this magnitude,” Borgstrom said. “This gift will hopefully be the first of many. [Smilow is] making a statement that this building is an important project to be supporting.”

Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said he is relieved by Smilow’s donation because it would have been “complicated” for the Hospital and School of Medicine to raise the funds on their own.

Although Smilow’s primary health interest is in cardiology and there is no history of cancer in his immediate family, he said he is affected by the cancer problem because “so many friends and acquaintances have life-threatening problems with cancer.”

“We know many families who have been battling it now, and it’s just such a big thing for us,” Smilow’s wife Joan Smilow said.

Levin said he appreciates Smilow’s interest in health issues. During the press conference, Levin said Smilow’s contribution will help attract more scientists and researchers to expand cancer research.

“We’re exceedingly grateful for this and truly thrilled by your generosity, Joel,” he said to Smilow toward the end of his remarks.

Smilow said that once the building is constructed, the hospital will have “incredible leverage” because of the vast resources it will provide the University. People from all across New England will flock to the new cancer center because it will be more accessible than other top-notch cancer hospitals, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York or Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, he said.

Wednesday’s donation is not the first Smilow has made to a large medical research institution — or to Yale.

In addition to SCH, Smilow has given money to five other health facilities, including the the Smilow Family Breast Health Center in Norwalk, Conn. He said he was happy to donate to Yale-New Haven Hospital because he has “roots and identity” within New Haven and wanted to contribute to the community.

The donation reflects two of Smilow’s greatest passions, he said — his love of philanthropy and his dedication to Yale.

“It was a major commitment for me,” he said. “But if my goal is to be philanthropic in life, then you can’t do it unless you make the big contributions in life.”

Smilow has donated to the renovation of Lapham Field House — now called Joel E. Smilow Field Center — and helped to fundraise for the renovation of the Yale Bowl. He spearheaded a $70 million investment campaign begun by the class of 1954, which helped create the Class of ’54 Environmental Science Center and the Class of ’54 Chemistry Research Building. Smilow has also endowed four coach and two assistant coach positions on the football team.

The construction of SCH is expected to be finished in late 2009.