The Great American Tradition of Philanthropy Continues at Medical Schools


By: Larry Schafer, vice provost for external affairs, the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College and Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University

“I would rather have it said, ‘He lived usefully,’ than, ‘He died rich,’” the inimitable Benjamin Franklin said.

Self-made and virtuosic in his abilities, Franklin fulfilled his maxim, lending his name, money, prestige, and novel philanthropic ideas to numerous institutions. Perhaps no less important than his role in launching the nation, Franklin helped establish the great American tradition of philanthropy. For over two centuries, his path has been well traveled by many others, whose names adorn the entryways of a multitude of American institutions with the mission to educate, research, and make the human condition more bearable.

Nowhere is Franklin’s tradition more on display than at American medical schools, several of which benefit from wealthy benefactors. Joan and Sandy Weill and the Weill Family Foundation, for example, have given over the years more than $600 million, allowing Weill Cornell Medical College to drive new discoveries and change lives far beyond the campus confines. Their gift to the medical college is more than treasure—it also includes their time and talent. As the Weills are fond of saying about their philanthropy, in a direct echo of Franklin’s view, “shrouds don’t have pockets.”

In the perspective “Green Eggs and Ham: Strategies to Address the Growing Phenomenon of Selling a Medical School’s Name,” the authors point out that 22 of the 141 U.S. medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education are named after donors, a major increase since 2008. They correctly assert that these benefactors and their large donations “have the potential to positively affect all stakeholders by improving the resources that are available for research, teaching, and clinical care.”

This is an understatement. Our experience at Weill Cornell, thanks to the Weills, is that philanthropy is a gift, in every sense of the word. It can help an institution build buildings, recruit talent, realize a vision, and inspire change. Extraordinary, transformative philanthropy can inspire great scientists and excellent physicians. And excellence isn’t free. It requires investment—in time, energy, vision, and resources. Because of substantial reductions in federal funding, partnerships between medical institutions and private donors and foundations are now more important than ever.

The authors stress that “large gifts have the potential to advance the interests of the institution and society, but great care must be taken to ensure that all stakeholders are adequately protected.” At Weill Cornell, we wholeheartedly agree that medicine—and a Hippocratic commitment to the health of patients—requires special checks and balances to ensure the purest environment possible for the health of mankind.  This is true about the medical profession with or without large gifts or any gifts.

When very wealthy people give away their money, they have many causes from which to select. The fact that medical schools are benefiting in increasing numbers means medical science and health care are also benefiting from bequests that will have a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

Some of the greatest art, science, and education institutions of New York City, and indeed America, bear the names of their benefactors—Guggenheim, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, for example. They have honored the tradition of Franklin, which, thankfully, continues to this day in American medical schools.



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