Published November 7, 2022
The late Jonathan D. Daniels, MD ’98, had a clear mission in life — to erase the term “underrepresented minorities in medicine” from the health care lexicon.
As associate director of admissions at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, he was a tireless advocate for diversity — recruiting and mentoring hundreds of scholars from traditionally underserved backgrounds.
And as one of the few Black physicians practicing in the city of Buffalo, he served as a role model to his pediatric patients in mostly Black and brown families as he provided care to multiple generations.
Daniels died tragically in an early morning fire on July 4 at his North Buffalo home, along with two of his adult daughters: Jordan, a 2022 graduate of the UB School of Management; and Jensen, a 2021 graduate of Buffalo State College.
He is survived by his wife, Janessa E. Givens Daniels, senior associate director in the UB Office of Financial Aid, and daughter, Jillian, a 2020 alumna of UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, says Daniels’ death creates a huge void in the Jacobs School and beyond.
“He was a treasured colleague, physician, mentor and friend,” she says. “His absence has left an unfillable hole in our school and the Buffalo area communities.”
“We can honor him by advocating for change and helping to knock down the barriers to health equity,” Brashear says. “We all need to open our minds to ways to improve diversity and inclusion in the university.”
Daniels was the first of his immediate family to graduate from college, but his journey was not along the traditional path.
He paused his undergraduate studies to join the United States Army Reserve 365th Evacuation Hospital as a combat medic and served during Operation Desert Storm.
After returning to Buffalo and receiving his undergraduate degree, he applied to UB’s medical school, but was wait-listed.
Not to be deterred, Daniels enrolled in a newly created post-baccalaureate program whose aim was to diversify the physician workforce by guaranteeing medical school admission to everyone who successfully completed the program.
It was created by the nonprofit Associated Medical Schools of New York (AMSNY), an organization that Daniels would work closely with throughout his career to expand the pool of scholars pursuing careers in medicine and health care.
The level of influence Daniels had on diversity initiatives and the admissions process at the Jacobs School cannot be overstated in the opinion of David A. Milling, MD ’93, executive director of the Office of Medical Education and senior associate dean for medical education, and a personal friend of Daniels for more than 20 years.
“Because he came to medical school through the post-baccalaureate program, Jonathan understood the importance of pipeline programs helping Black and brown students in New York state,” he says. “He was a fierce advocate for helping to prepare students for medical school through that process.”
Daniels “was an integral part of the team that helps to ensure that our students are successful,” Milling says.
“He was an extremely level-headed, thoughtful consensus-builder who was able to have the conversations that were sometimes emotional, but always helped us to reach consensus,” he says. “He was always able to do that; that was a particular skill that he had.”
Dori R. Marshall, MD ’97, associate dean and director of admissions at the Jacobs School, worked alongside Daniels on the school’s admissions committee before both were elevated to leadership positions in the Office of Medical Admissions.
“When I was asked if I would be interested in being director, I was also asked if I wanted an assistant director and I immediately said ‘yes’ and reached out to Jonathan,” she says.
The two were instrumental in shaping the school’s transition to a more holistic review process — looking at more than the traditional metrics when considering medical school applicants.
“We did everything together. We made decisions about the admissions committee and outreach to undergraduates,” Marshall says. “We developed the holistic process more and more, helping committee members feel comfortable from stepping back from GPA and MCAT scores and looking much more holistically at applicants.”
Marshall notes Daniels was passionate about connecting with Black and Hispanic high school and college students — who are underrepresented in medicine.
“Jonathan had a way with connecting with students and making them feel comfortable and confident,” she says. “It was almost effortless. Once he was in a room with a group of students, he would smile at them, relax them and reassure them that he supported them and believed in them. And he told them if they wanted this, they could make it happen.”
Data show the Jacobs School has made significant strides in increasing the number of underrepresented students in its medical school classes — 23.75 percent of total admissions over the past four years have been students underrepresented in medicine, according to Marshall.
Emmekunla K. Nylander, MD, ’96, says when Daniels was named associate director of admissions, “it was a monumental thing.”
“To have a physician of color involved in a leadership role in admissions was huge. I have heard from incoming students who have said ‘wow, I interviewed with a Black doctor today who looked like me.’” she says. “That had such a huge impact on them because they don’t see a lot of Black faculty, they don’t see a lot of us.”
“Many of those students who are coming in now, I know he advocated for. The majority of underrepresented students in this year’s class are because of him,” Nylander says.
The Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, pastor of Liberty Missionary Baptist Church and co-convener of the African American Health Equity Task Force, served with Daniels on the Jacobs School’s Standing Committee on Diversity, Inclusion and Learning Environment (DIALE) and says Daniels was masterful at asking “thoughtful, contemplated questions.”
“He would ask really insightful questions that would force you to think about what your answers are,” he says. “And he would simply sit quietly and wait for you to think about it and to respond. He was often out front of the rest of us.”
Pointer says Daniels was also “incredibly intuitive, generous, and giving of his time and attention.”
“It did not matter who you were, if he thought you needed him, he found time for you,” he says.
Pointer co-teaches a first-year elective at the Jacobs School called “Health in the Neighborhood,” that addresses health inequities and disparities and is based in an underserved city neighborhood where students meet with community members and leaders.
“I go out of my way to tell the students ‘you are not here by accident’ because sometimes when you are young, you can lose sight of the goal,” he says. “Dr. Daniels would say ‘forward.’ He would remind them you can’t get anywhere standing still.”
Pointer says he would often find Daniels in the lunch area on the first floor of the Jacobs School building, not far from the Office of Medical Admissions.
“He didn’t have to eat his lunch there, but he did that on purpose because he always wanted to be positioned, where if a student needed his help, he would be there,” he says.
“This is my 42nd year in pastoral ministries, and I’m telling you I don’t meet a lot of Jonathan Danielses — they just don’t exist,” Pointer says. “And that is not an indictment of us as much as it is an acknowledgement of who Dr. Daniels was.”
Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, the Jacobs School’s senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, says Daniels was a driving force behind pipeline programs such as the Early Opportunity Program in Medicine that recruits qualified applicants from groups historically underrepresented in medicine.
It is a pre-admission program to the Jacobs School for eligible sophomores enrolled in its partner schools — UB, D’Youville College, Canisius College, Buffalo State College, Niagara University and Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Mississippi.
“We recruit virtually and in person. Jonathan was always ready to participate in recruiting events,” she says. “He had been driving the program in an amazing manner, allowing it to thrive.”
Dubocovich, who is co-chair of the DIALE Committee, says Daniels was a “natural leader who was very articulate in matters of policy.”
Daniels’ upbeat personality resonated strongly with students, Dubocovich says.
“He was so polite and kind. He had chemistry that was the perfect combination of qualities to encourage students to succeed,” she says.
Dubocovich says she witnessed firsthand the effect Daniels had on students when he was a guest speaker at a CLIMB UP (Undergraduate Program) for Summer Research event just a few weeks before his untimely death.
“We had 25 students in the program and for one of the events we had Jonathan come and talk to them about going onto graduate school or professional careers,” she says. “He talked about his life and his path to medical school.”
“The students were fascinated. After the talk, we had a dinner scheduled for the students, but all 25 of them lined up to talk more with Jonathan before going to dinner,” Dubocovich says.
Beyond his influence in the Jacobs School, Daniels was beloved in the community for his work as one of only three Black male pediatricians practicing in the city of Buffalo.
Raul Vazquez, MD ’89, president and CEO of Urban Family Practice, brought Daniels into his practice as medical director for pediatrics at the Jefferson Avenue location in May 2021 after Daniels worked for 19 years at Main Pediatrics.
“When Jonathan was a medical student, he did a rotation through my practice on Niagara Street,” Vazquez says. “Over the years we always talked about him practicing with me so when the opportunity arose last year, I told him I had to hold him to his word.”
“I looked at it as a partnership type relationship, not as an employee of mine,” he adds. “I brought him into practice in the area of Jefferson Avenue, which was important because there were not a lot of Black and brown providers in that area.”
Vazquez, who recently completed a term as president of UB’s Medical Alumni Association, says Daniels “was a quiet builder who did a lot of things in the background.”
Nylander is an obstetrician-gynecologist in the community who knew Daniels since medical school, and would routinely refer patients to him.
“My patients were Jonathan’s patients. We would often see each other at the hospital and converse about our shared patients,” she says. “He was taking care of a large population of our community and I know he had a special relationship with all his patients and their parents.”
“To his patients, Jonathan was more than just their doctor,” Nylander says. “He was a role model, somebody that they looked up to because we don’t see that a lot — people who look like us in those professions.”
Nylander says Daniels was a “larger than life figure to them.”
“He raised a lot of young men in the community just by being their physician and caring about them,” she says.
Javeena Edwards, MBA ’05, says Daniels cared for her son and two daughters and she always appreciated his thoroughness and cautious nature.
“My oldest is 21 and he had been going to see Dr. Daniels for 19 years,” said Edwards, chief financial officer for Girl Scouts of Western New York. “If there was even the slightest inkling of anything that might be wrong, he would always follow up on it.”
Edwards says it was important to her to have a physician of color for her children, and especially for her son, being a Black male, to see the potential he could achieve.
“Dr. Daniels was always keen about education. He would always ask my son how school was going,” she says. “He would ask him what his thoughts were beyond high school, and I always appreciated that he had those conversations with him.”
“It showed him that whatever path he did choose, he could see other Black men in powerful positions like a doctor, lawyer or even President of the United States,” Edwards says.
The Rev. George Nicholas, pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church and co-convener of the African American Health Equity Task Force, says Daniels took special care as a pediatrician for his four sons.
“He established relationships with them, took the time to really talk to them not only as a physician, but as a Black man speaking to a Black boy, which is so important,” he says.
It is a rather cruel irony that the untimely death of a man who was relentless in advocating for diversity in medicine leaves a tremendous void in a community lacking in physicians of color.
“The goal of everything we have done is to try and increase the number of Black and brown students that we have trained,” Milling says. “We need to make sure that pipeline continues from medical school to residency here in Buffalo.”
“We need to try and keep those physicians here. That is a huge part of Jonathan’s legacy,” he adds. “We have to continue to build those bridges between undergraduate medical education and the transition to graduate medical education in Buffalo.”
Marshall acknowledges the void Daniels’ death left in the community, but says UB has put the building blocks in place to begin to address the issue, in no small part due to Daniels’ efforts.
“The fact that we have so significantly changed the numbers of medical students currently in our school who are Black and Hispanic means that we have an opportunity to create an environment that welcomes them and keeps them interested in Buffalo for residency and for their careers beyond,” she says.
“We have the students here, so we have to create that climate that keeps our students interested in Buffalo and interested in serving in our communities because we are building something wonderful,” Marshall says. “Jonathan would be so upset with us if we let that fall apart.”
Nicholas says he greatly admired Daniels’ refusal to remain silent on issues of great importance, such as racism.
“Sometimes when physicians or others gain professional prominence, they are hesitant to speak up on issues of race out of fear that it will impact their climb to whatever professional aspirations they may have,” he says.
“But Jonathan was not like that at all. He spoke his mind. He spoke truth,” Nicholas says. “If it made some people uncomfortable, the solution was to resolve the issue. That often led to conversations. That will be greatly missed.”
Milling says that based on who he was and growing up in Buffalo, Daniels “understood all of the nuances that that were in place, especially during these last two or three years where we have had so much racial upheaval and turmoil in the country.”
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 and several other national events that summer stirred Jacobs School students to demand action.
They drafted a resolution to “acknowledge and respond to the recent acts of race-based violence against Black people nationally” and an eight-page addendum with recommendations.
Jacobs School faculty, staff and students would gather for several town hall meetings, moderated by Daniels, to discuss the school’s strategic plan for diversity and inclusion.
“Jonathan was instrumental in helping us to craft a response to our students who had forwarded a resolution that expected the medical school to change and to act on many issues,” Milling says. “Jonathan helped us to process what was happening.”
As the Jacobs School recently embarked on developing a revised curriculum that includes antiracism principles, Daniels was again at the forefront of the discussions.
“In all the years I worked alongside him, I cannot recall a single instance of Jonathan being angry or raising his voice,” Pointer says. “After the George Floyd incident, I saw a brief period of sullenness, but I think it was just his disappointment in our human condition in America.”
“The students had some ideas about what the school needed to do, and he got right in, rolled up his sleeves and said, ‘let’s get to work,’” he notes.
And following the horrific tragedy on May 14, 2022, where 10 people were killed in a racially motivated shooting at a Tops market just a little more than a mile from the Jacobs School, Daniels again took a lead role, saying ‘we have to figure out what we need to do,’” Pointer says.
Although Daniels was steadfast in his educational mission, he also connected with the UB and Buffalo community through the role most dear to him — being a devoted family man.
“There are many aspects of what he did, but then there is who he was,” Milling says. “He was an upstanding family man with values, setting the example for everyone around him, not just the students, but colleagues and friends.”
Jennifer Britton, UB’s senior director of alumni and constituent engagement, had a personal connection to the Daniels family before ever working at the university.
“My family knew Jonathan’s family. Jordan played softball with my sister and my father coached with Jonathan at Shoshone Park,” she says. “We all lived in North Buffalo where they were beloved by us and many families in the community.”
Britton later worked with Daniels when he was president of the Medical Alumni Association and on many UB alumni events, and says he always brought his family along and praised them for their support whenever he spoke.
“They were a proud UB family, and always came together to our events,” she says. “Their presence will be missed.”
Nylander sums up her friend thusly: “He was truly a good man, husband, father, doctor, colleague, friend and brother. He was all that and more.”
Milling says he will always remember Daniels for his consistent focus on improving the world around him.
“He always wanted us to be better. There are so many ways that we can continue to do that to honor Jonathan’s legacy.”
The Jonathan D. Daniels, MD ’98 & Family Memorial Fund has been established to support students of color and others who have been historically underrepresented in medicine. Gifts may be made online at https://buffalo.edu/campaign/DanielsMemorialFund, or by calling toll free 1-855-GIVE-2-UB.
Mailed donations should be directed to: University at Buffalo Foundation Inc., c/o Jonathan D. Daniels, MD ’98 & Family Memorial Fund, PO Box 730, Buffalo, NY 14226-0730.