The Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons– one of the top medical schools in the United States– just got a new name. From now on it will be called The Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in honor of a $250 million gift from the former chairman of Merck & Co., Roy Vagelos and his wife, Diana.
Vagelos, who was born Pindaros Vagelos in 1929 to Greek immigrants who arrived in the United States from Turkey, grew up during the Depression in Westfield, New Jersey. His parents owned a restaurant where he spent much of his youth.
With the gift, which is in addition to some $60 million already donated by the couple to Columbia University, the school will fund an endowment that will help medical students with both full-tuition grants for medical school, as well as smaller grants based on financial need.
Columbia University’s medical school is amongst the most expensive in the nation. Tuition for one year is $59,364. With fees and living expenses, the total is about $90,000 per year, setting a prospective medical student back more than $360,000 for four years of study.
Dr. Vagelos said that he hopes the gift will free Columbia’s medical students to pursue careers in family medicine, pediatrics, research and other fields that are less lucrative than the top-paying specialties. Dr. Vagelos was himself a scholarship student at the school in the 1950s.
“We think that this will make a really important impact on the future careers of our graduates, who will be able to follow their dreams, which was what I was able to do,” he said.
Dr. Vagelos served as chief executive officer of Merck & Co. Inc. for nine years, from 1985 to 1994. After leaving the global health care company, Dr. Vagelos became chairman of the board of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a successful biotechnology company.
At Merck, Dr. Vagelos led an effort by the company to provide for free a drug that combats the parasite that causes river blindness. Since 1987, free annual doses of the drug, mectizan, have been provided to hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, greatly reducing the public health threat of the disease worldwide.
In this interview, Vagelos speaks about the influence of his Greek immigrant parents and how growing up in the family restaurant helped shape his career.
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