Marilyn Price Birnhak, 85, of Bala Cynwyd, founder and longtime president of Weight Watchers of Philadelphia Inc. and a local philanthropist, died Saturday, Jan. 13, of complications from pancreatic cancer at Lankenau Medical Center, Wynnewood.

Marilyn Price Birnhak
Courtesy of the family
Marilyn Price Birnhak

Mrs. Birnhak had her first experience with the weight-loss industry in 1963 while living in New York. She and her husband, J. Robert Birnhak, signed up for a weight-loss class. They lost the weight and gained a vocation.

The Birnhaks were so impressed by the weight-loss program taught by Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch that when they were offered an opportunity to buy a franchise, they jumped at it, creating Weight Watchers of Philadelphia in Mrs. Birnhak's hometown.

From a fledgling operation in 1964 with two meetings and eight members in Mount  Airy, the couple grew the franchise into an enterprise with 500 employees serving up to 20,000 members each week in 450 meetings across Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

Mrs. Birnhak's mother, Reba Jurnovoy Price, worked with the franchise for 25 years before retiring at age 88. "My grandmother helped by clerking at the meetings, and ended up running the bookkeeping department," said Mrs. Birnhak's son, John, now the company's president.

Before her death from breast cancer in 2004, daughter Tracey Birnhak was vice president of marketing and business development for the franchise.

Weight Watchers works by offering members nutritional information and behavior modification techniques in a supportive group setting.

Mrs. Birnhak never retired from the franchise, which is in its 54th year. "She was in the office two weeks ago, running a management meeting," her son said.

Her son attributed Mrs. Birnhak's success in business to the support of her husband, an altruistic spirit, and plain old hard work. "Even when she started to lecture, she would practice and practice and practice what she would say for my father before she went and did it," he said.

A native of Fern Rock, Mrs. Birnhak graduated from Olney High School. She and her husband married in 1955 and reared their children in Mount Airy and later Cheltenham.

The Birnhaks served on the board of directors for the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life, where the Birnhak Transitional Care Unit was named in their honor.

The Birnhak Transitional Care Center at Lankenau, which the couple also helped underwrite, is under construction and due to open in 18 months.

They supported Ben Gurion University of the Negev; Magen David Adom, Israel's national emergency ambulance and blood bank; Philadelphia Theatre Company; and the National Liberty Museum.

Mrs. Birnhak was a founding contributor to the AIM Academy, an educational program for gifted children who learn better outside a mainstream classroom.

In addition, the Birnhaks raised money for and contributed to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia, United Way of Greater Philadelphia, Hero Thrill Show Inc., American Heart Association, Alzheimer's Association, Beth Sholom Congregation, Weight Watchers of Philadelphia Feeds the Hungry, National Kidney Foundation, and Susan B. Komen for the Cure.

Mrs. Birnhak founded the "I Have Strength Fund" at the Abramson Center at the University of Pennsylvania to memorialize her daughter Tracey. The fund supports breast cancer research. The Birnhaks also endowed the Nutritional Counseling Center in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

Mrs. Birnhak appeared on numerous television and talk radio shows and as a panelist for health-themed events. She lectured at area medical colleges so that physicians could learn how to support people who need to lose weight.

Besides her husband of 63 years and her son, Mrs. Birnhak is survived by daughter Valerie, four grandchildren, and a brother.

A funeral service will be held at noon Wednesday, Jan. 17, at Beth Sholom Congregation, 8231 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, followed by interment at Roosevelt Memorial Park, Trevose. The family will sit shivah at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Birnhak residence in Bala Cynwyd.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life, 1425 Horsham Rd., North Wales, Pa. 19454.