Billion-dollar donation will provide free tuition at Bronx medical school


The 93-year-old widow of a Wall Street financier has donated $1 billion to a Bronx medical school, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, with instructions that the donation be used to cover the tuition of all students at the school. future.

The donor, Ruth Gottesman, is a former professor at Einstein, where she studied learning disabilities, developed a screening test, and ran literacy programs. It is one of the largest charitable donations to an educational institution in the United States and probably the largest to a medical school.

The fortune came from her late husband, David Gottesman, known as Sandy, who was a protégé of Warren Buffett and had made an early investment in Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Buffett built.

The donation is notable not only for its staggering size, but also because it will go to a medical institution in the Bronx, the city’s poorest district. The Bronx has a high rate of premature deaths and ranks as the unhealthiest borough in New York. Over the past generation, billionaires have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to well-known medical schools and hospitals in Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest borough.

Dr. Gottesman said her donation would allow new doctors to begin their careers without medical school debt, which often exceeds $200,000. She also hoped that she would expand the student body to include people who otherwise could not afford to go to medical school.

While her husband ran an investment firm, First Manhattan, Dr. Gottesman had a long career at Einstein, a prestigious medical school, beginning in 1968, when she accepted a position as director of psychoeducational services. She has long been on Einstein’s board of directors and is currently the president.

In recent years, she has become close friends with Dr. Philip Ozuah, the pediatrician who oversees the medical school and its affiliated hospital, Montefiore Medical Center, as the health system’s CEO. That friendship and trust loomed large as she contemplated what to do with the money her husband had left her.

In an interview Friday at Einstein’s campus in the Morris Park neighborhood, Dr. Ozuah and Dr. Gottesman talked about the donation, how it was accomplished and what it would mean for Einstein medical students.

In early 2020, the two sat next to each other on a 6 a.m. flight to West Palm Beach, Florida. It was the first time they spent hours together.

They talked about their childhood (hers in Baltimore, his, some 30 years later, in Nigeria) and what they had in common. Both had doctorates in education and had spent their careers at the same institution in the Bronx, helping children and families in need.

Dr. Ozuah described moving to New York, not knowing a single person in the state, and spending years as a community doctor in the South Bronx before rising to the top of medical school.

Leaving the airport, Dr. Ozuah offered his arm to Dr. Gottesman, not yet 90 years old at the time, as they approached the sidewalk. She saw him off and told him to “watch your own step,” he recalled with a smile.

Within a few weeks, the coronavirus paralyzed the world. Dr. Gottesman’s husband, who is in his 90s, became ill with the new pathogen and she had a mild case. Dr. Ozuah sent an ambulance to Gottesman’s home in Rye, New York, to take them to Montefiore, the largest hospital in the Bronx.

In the weeks that followed, Dr. Ozuah began making daily home visits, in full protective gear, to monitor the couple while Gottesman recovered. “That’s how the friendship evolved,” he said. “I probably spent every day for about three weeks visiting them in Rye.”

About three years ago, Dr. Ozuah asked Dr. Gottesman to chair the medical school’s board of trustees. He had done the job before, but given his age, he was surprised. The gesture reminded him of the fable of the lion and the mouse, he told Dr. Ozuah at the time, explaining that when the lion spares the mouse’s life, the mouse tells him, “Maybe one day I can help you.”

In the story, the lion laughs haughtily. “But Phil didn’t say ‘ha ha ha,’” he noted with a smile.

Dr. Gottesman’s husband died in 2022, at age 96. “He left me, without my knowledge, an entire portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway shares,” she recalled. The instructions were simple: “Do what you think is right with him,” she recalled.

It was overwhelming to think about, so at first he didn’t do it. But her children encouraged her not to wait too long.

When he focused on the legacy, he immediately realized what he wanted to do, he recalled. “I wanted to fund Einstein students to receive free tuition,” she said. There was enough money to do it in perpetuity, she claimed.

Over the years, he had interviewed dozens of future Einstein medical students. Tuition costs more than $59,000 a year, and many graduated with crippling medical school debt. According to the school, nearly 50 percent of its students owed more than $200,000 after graduating. At most other New York City medical schools, fewer than 25 percent of new doctors owed that amount.

Nearly half of Einstein’s first-year medical students are New Yorkers and nearly 60 percent are women. About 48 percent of current medical students at Einstein are white, 29 percent are Asian, 11 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are black.

Not only would prospective students be able to embark on their careers without the burden of debt, but he hoped his donation would also allow a broader group of aspiring doctors to apply to medical school. “We have excellent medical students, but this will open the doors to many other students whose economic situation is such that they would not even think about going to medical school,” he said.

“That’s what makes me very happy about this gift,” he added. “I have the opportunity to not only help Phil, but also help Montefiore and Einstein in a transformative way, and I am very proud and honored to be able to do so.”

Dr. Gottesman went to see Dr. Ozuah in December to tell him he would make a large donation. He reminded her of the story of the lion and the mouse. This, he explained, was the mouse’s moment.

“If someone said to you, ‘I’ll give you a life-changing gift for medical school,’ what would you do?” she asked.

There were probably three things, Dr. Ozuah said.

“First,” he began, “you could make education free…”

“That’s what I want to do,” he said. He never mentioned the other ideas.

Dr. Gottesman sometimes wonders what her late husband would have thought of her decision.

“I hope you’re smiling and not frowning,” he said with a smile. “But he gave me the opportunity to do this and I think he would be happy, I hope so.”

Einstein won’t be the first medical school to eliminate tuition.

In 2018, New York University announced it would begin offering free tuition to medical students and saw a surge in applications.

Dr. Gottesman was reluctant to attach her name to her donation. “No one needs to know,” Dr. Ozuah recalled her saying at the beginning. But Dr. Ozuah insisted that others might find her life inspiring. “Here is someone who is totally dedicated to the well-being of others and does not want praise or recognition,” Dr. Ozuah said.

Dr. Ozuah noted that the going price for placing his name on a medical school or hospital was perhaps one-fifth of Dr. Gottesman’s donation. Cornell Medical College and New York Hospital now include the last name of Sanford Weill, former head of Citigroup. New York University Medical Center was renamed after Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot. Both men donated hundreds of millions of dollars.

But it is a condition of Dr. Gottesman’s donation that the Einstein College of Medicine not change its name. Albert Einstein, the physicist who developed the theory of relativity, agreed to name the medical school, which opened in 1955, after him.

The name, he noted, is unparalleled. “We have the damn name: we have Albert Einstein.”

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