The estate of Gertrude Donnelly Hess, one of two women to graduate from the Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1934, has bequeathed approximately $5.7 million to the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, the largest bequest by a single donor in the School of Medicine's history. The bequest will be used to establish the Gertrude Donnelly Hess, M.D., Endowed Fund for Oncology Research.
Not only did the self-described maverick and strong-willed pioneer go on to have a successful 40-year career as a doctor of family medicine in Cleveland, she also kept her alma mater close to her heart. A widow with no children, Hess considered the students and faculty of the School of Medicine part of her family. She died in January 2006, less than two months shy of her 102nd birthday.
"Dr. Hess began her generous legacy at Case Western Reserve after she retired in 1973," said Pamela Davis, dean of the School of Medicine. "I am so thankful for her quiet support for the medical school through the years. Her dedication to her profession -- especially to cancer research -- was unwavering. That dedication, along with her deep passion for her medical school family, will help us continue to graduate extraordinary physicians for the future."
After receiving her undergraduate degree in chemistry in 1926 from Flora Stone Mather College at Western Reserve University, a short stint at the Cleveland Clinic as a medical technician convinced Hess she should take a few more steps to become a doctor. And in the early 1930s, when women traditionally did not work outside the home, Hess defied that conventional wisdom to become one of two women in her medical graduating class of 53 students.
"I made up my mind, saved my money and made an application (to medical school). I never regretted it and still have it in my blood," Hess said in a 1999 interview. At the time, she recalled riding the streetcars to the university from Lakewood every day, brown-bagging her lunch and going out to celebrate after finals.
After an internship and residency in Pittsburgh -- Hess had had difficulty obtaining an internship in Northeast Ohio because several hospitals were reluctant to accept a woman doctor -- she opened a family medicine practice at Kamm's Corners, a neighborhood just west of Cleveland. Though she was married to husband Gilbert for 55 years, she continued to use her maiden name, Donnelly, to avoid confusion among her patients.
Hess always credited her husband for investing "very carefully and wisely" in the stock market. Considering that at the time her early practice charges were $2 per office visit, $3 for house calls, $5 for evening house calls and $50 (including prenatal and postnatal care) for baby deliveries, Gilbert Hess ended up being a shrewd investor.
In 1999, Hess shared this success with the School of Medicine by committing to endow a professorship in cancer research in conjunction with her 65th reunion year.
"The cellular structure of cancer is the most interesting and promising area of research," she said at the time. Hess continued to keep current with medical literature right until her death, reading the Journal of the American Medical Association and Archives of Internal Medicine. She was a member of the Academy of Medicine of Cleveland for more than 50 years.
Kurt C. Stange, professor of family medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics, sociology and oncology and associate director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, holds the Gertrude Donnelly Hess, M.D., Chair for Research in Oncology. Stange also is an American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor. He is on a research sabbatical in the United Kingdom.