Published January 4, 2019
The Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences will long prosper from the donations of a benefactor who spent his medical career caring for people in a small Indiana town for almost 60 years.
George Melvin Ellis Jr., MD, who earned his medical degree from UB in 1945, has been revealed as the donor of the largest-ever gift in school history.
In September 2011, UB announced an anonymous donation of $40 million that was designated for the Jacobs School. Ellis had died on July 21, 2010, at the age of 87. According to the terms of that gift, the donor’s identity would remain anonymous as long as his wife, Gladys “Kelly” Ellis, was alive. Kelly Ellis died on Feb. 15, 2018, at the age of 95.
By the time George Ellis’ estate was settled in 2014, the gift had grown to $45 million. Upon his wife’s death, UB received the remaining money from three trusts Ellis had set up.
In all, the total contribution to the school has grown to more than $50 million.
During all those years, while caring for generations of families in Connersville, Indiana, he was also committed to giving back to his alma mater.
“In the decades since Dr. Ellis attended UB, our university and our city have undergone transformative changes,” said UB President Satish K. Tripathi. “But just as he remained steadfast in his commitment to give back to the university he cherished, UB has remained committed to cultivating exceptionally well-trained, civic-minded physicians — like Dr. Ellis — who are dedicated to delivering exemplary care.”
“It is these future physicians who will benefit profoundly from Dr. Ellis’ tremendous legacy — and, by extension, the patients they will ultimately care for, here in Western New York and beyond.”
The gift proved fortuitous. It came just after UB — with the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — had made the decision to build a new home downtown for the Jacobs School.
“Just knowing we had this gift invested has made all the difference in our having the confidence to plan and move forward,” said Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “It will be years — maybe even decades — before we fully realize the impact of Dr. Ellis’ generosity, because this is truly a gift that will keep on giving for generations. It ensures that we can provide more scholarships to the most promising students and continue hiring top physician-scientists to teach and perform groundbreaking research in our school.”
Ellis’ dream of becoming a doctor took hold when he was 8 years old. While on a family vacation in New England, he became ill. The physician who diagnosed him with appendicitis and made sure that he was promptly treated was a general practitioner who had made a house call.
“Because of that experience, George became enamored of the skills of general practitioners,” said David A. Draper, associate vice president for advancement at UB, who knew Ellis for many years. “He was very proud of the fact that he was a clinician, and he always described his medical education at UB as superior to other schools — even Ivy League schools — because of the quality of clinical training he received.”
“From what he told me over the years, I would say that George’s primary motivation was to ensure that the Jacobs School continues providing its students with clinical training that is equal or superior to what he received.”
The magnitude of the donation isn’t the only factor that distinguishes what Ellis left to UB. It’s the fact that the gift was given without restrictions.
“He was the epitome of a true philanthropist,” Draper said. “His intent was that there were people other than him who could make decisions about how the money should be best utilized to further the mission of the school.”
Ellis’ gifts support nearly every aspect of medical education, including faculty recruitment, a scholarship fund for medical students and the George M. Ellis Jr. and Kelly Ellis Professorship in Family Medicine to recognize the value of the kind of medicine he practiced.
In 1942, at the height of World War II, Ellis, a native of Toledo, Ohio, was awarded early admission to the Jacobs School after only three years of college. Due to the war and the need for physicians, many medical schools around the country offered accelerated medical education programs such as UB’s, where students graduated in three years.
The war ended in August 1945, six weeks after Ellis began his internship. Injured troops returning home required medical care. Ellis was assigned to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, where he met and began dating Kelly, a nurse at the facility. They married in 1951 and she began working as his nurse.
When his military service was over, the couple relocated to Connersville, a community in central Indiana, where Ellis practiced until his death.
He and his wife never had children. They lived modestly in a two-bedroom house a couple of miles from his office.
“George and Kelly Ellis posted office hours, but the hours didn’t really matter,” Draper recalled. “They never turned people away, even if they couldn’t pay. He was focused on the fact that his life was dedicated to the health and well-being of the community he served — he really embraced the Hippocratic Oath.”
His loyalty to UB knew no bounds.
“George always said that the greatest day of his life was the day he received his letter of acceptance to the UB medical school,” recalled classmate Herbert E. Joyce, MD ’45. “He was without a doubt the most loyal to UB of anyone I have ever known.”
In addition to his busy life as a doctor, Ellis taught himself how to invest using the money that his father had left him as an inheritance.
Joyce said he knew Ellis was well off financially because he was a savvy investor, but never imagined he had acquired the tremendous wealth that has now been made known.
“George never changed, in appearance or approach. He was always very friendly and very humble. He did not want his name mentioned or any accolades. Above everything was his love for the UB medical school,” Joyce said.
In the decades following their graduation from medical school, Joyce served as class chair for reunions and Ellis was class secretary. Whenever a class reunion project fell short of needed funds, Ellis would write a check for the deficit, Joyce recalled.
“He never refused me, and we never would have made it without him stepping up when he did,” Joyce said.
Ellis served UB in various volunteer capacities and was a long-term member of the Dean’s Advisory Council at the Jacobs School. He remained highly engaged with UB, traveling to Buffalo with his wife for all the class reunions until his failing health kept them from doing so.
“Ultimately, the amount of his gift and recognition for it was not what he focused on. He loved UB, and from the early 1940s on, he never lost sight of his goal to give back,” said Eric C. Alcott, senior associate dean of medical development and alumni relations, who knew Ellis for decades. “I don’t think he knew that he would be supporting the Jacobs School to the extent that he is. But his time here was an experience he cherished and he gave back from his heart.”