How Nigerian immigrant Philip Ozuah orchestrated the largest donation to a medical school in the United States

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 3, 2024 9:20 AM EDT
Phillip Ozuah. Photo credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine

In February, videos of students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine celebrating a historic gift that ensured they would never have to pay tuition again went viral. The $1 billion donation – the largest made to any medical school in the United States – was from Dr. Ruth Gottesman, a former professor who spent 55 years as the chair of the school’s board. She made the donation in the name of her late husband, David “Sandy” Gottesman, an early investor in Berkshire Hathaway. But most do not know that Nigerian immigrant, Dr. Philip Ozuah, President and CEO of Montefiore Einstein, the umbrella organization for the university, was the driving force behind the donation.

“We have terrific medical students, but this will open it up for many other students whose economic status is such that they wouldn’t even think about going to medical school. That’s what makes me very happy about this gift. I have the opportunity not just to help Phil, but to help Montefiore and Einstein in a transformative way — and I’m just so proud and so humbled — both — that I could do it,” Dr Gottesman said of her decision to donate $1 billion to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

After entering medical school at age 14 in Nigeria, Dr Ozuah planned to earn his M.D. and get extra training in the U.S. or the U.K.  He would then return home to collaborate with his father, an engineer, on building a hospital that the younger Ozuah would run. He earned his medical degree from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership and administration from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Dr Ozuah completed his pediatric internship and residency at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore and his post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

However, his well-thought plan went out of the window when he became enamored with his pediatrics work in the Bronx at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr Ozuah has since spent his entire career with the organization.

“I was always driven by the desire to make a difference, and to make a difference in underserved populations. That was actually one of the factors in remaining and practicing in the Bronx, because I realized I could serve an underserved population right here in New York, and that deepened the resolve and the passion for doing that work,” Dr Ozuah explained why he decided to stay in America.

He made his mark as a world-class pediatrician, with a special interest in asthma, obesity, and environmental exposure. His insightful medical knowledge and administrative acumen accelerated his rise to Professor and University Chairman of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief of Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM). Today, Dr Ozuah oversees Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System’s 13 member hospitals, 300 ambulatory sites, and 7.5 million patient encounters per year. He leads an organization with $8 billion in annual revenues, 10,000 physicians, and 53,000 employees.

On the other hand, Dr. Gottesman joined Einstein’s Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center (CERC) in 1968. She developed widely used screening, evaluation, and treatment modalities that have helped tens of thousands of children at a time when learning problems were often unrecognized and misdiagnosed. In 1992, she started the Adult Literacy Program at CERC, the first of its kind, and was named the founding director of the Emily Fisher Landau Center for the Treatment of Learning Disabilities in 1998. Dr. Gottesman and her late husband have donated enormously to innovative research and education initiatives. In 2010, their gift of $25 million to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine went towards creating the school’s Institute for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine.

Dr Ozuah and Dr. Gottesman became close friends in recent times. In an interview with the New York Times, the two spoke about how they orchestrated the donation. At the start of 2020, they sat next to each other on a 6 a.m. flight to Florida and spoke about their childhoods. Coming from two immensely different places, him in Nigeria and her in Baltimore, they had a lot in common. They both had doctorates in education and had spent their careers at the same institution in the Bronx. It was the first time Dr Ozuah and Dr. Gottesman spent hours together.

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Gottesman’s husband became ill with the virus and she had a mild case. Dr. Ozuah sent an ambulance to their home to bring them to Montefiore Hospital. He began to make daily house calls to check in on the couple as Mr. Gottesman recovered in the weeks that followed. Their friendship evolved. Dr. Ozuah asked Dr. Gottesman to head the medical school’s board of trustees. Although she had done the job before, she was surprised given her age.

When Dr. Gottesman’s husband died in 2022 at age 96, he left her a whole portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway stock. His instructions were simple: “Do whatever you think is right with it.” The responsibility was overwhelming to think about but her children encouraged her not to wait too long. Dr. Gottesman immediately realized what she wanted to do when she began to lay out the plans for her inheritance. She wanted to ensure that students at Einstein could receive free tuition and had enough money to do so in perpetuity.

Last December, Dr. Gottesman went to see Dr. Ozuah to tell him that she would be making a major gift. “If someone said, ‘I’ll give you a transformative gift for the medical school,’ what would you do?” she asked him. He had three suggestions with his first being a free education and it was what they went for. The donation is intended to attract a talented and diverse pool of individuals who may not have the means to pursue medical education. With the average graduate leaving medical school owing more than $200,000, it will enable generations of healthcare leaders to graduate free from the burden of crushing loan indebtedness.

“I am profoundly grateful to Dr. Gottesman for this historic and transformational gift. I believe we can change healthcare history when we recognize that access is the path to excellence. With this gift, Dr. Gottesman will fund excellence in perpetuity and secure our foundational mission of advancing human health,” Dr Ozuah said of the transformational gift.