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Couple leaves $13 million gift to support cancer, dermatology research at OHSU

OHSU leaders say gift from the estate of George and Helene Ettelson will serve as a ‘vital resource’ for innovative health care research
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George and Helene Ettelson embrace in an old, vintage photo. A $13 million gift from the estate of George and Helene Ettelson will serve as a ‘vital resource’ for innovative health care research at OHSU. (Photo courtesy of Diane Lowenstein)
A $13 million gift from the estate of George and Helene Ettelson will serve as a ‘vital resource’ for innovative health care research at OHSU. (Photo courtesy of Diane Lowenstein)

More than 60 years ago, George and Helene Ettelson of San Francisco made a gift to Oregon Health & Science University to honor George’s father, a prominent Portland dermatologist, on his 75th birthday. That donation, which established the Dr. Jesse Ettelson Fund for the Advancement of Dermatology Research, planted the seeds for the couple’s decades-long connection to OHSU that would grow over the years.

When Helene passed away a year ago, the OHSU Foundation learned OHSU would be the beneficiary of her generous giving once again, with an unprecedented estate gift of nearly $13 million to support cancer and dermatology faculty and innovation.

View photos and see other Knight Cancer stories in the Knight Cancer Institute media kit.

Both Helene and George were diagnosed with cancer during their lives, and George passed away from acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, in 2007. In addition to their original gift to support the OHSU dermatology program, Helene made a gift in 2012 to establish the George Ettelson Endowment for AML Research at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

Their daughter, Diane Lowenstein, says Helene recognized the impact research had on her own experience as a patient with cancer and was profoundly grateful.

“My mom would be so gratified to know that more people were able to be seen, treated and healed,” she says. “She’d be thrilled to know new discoveries were being made. If her gift makes any of that possible, it will have a lasting effect on the institution and community for generations to come and might inspire others to make gifts to support OHSU’s important work.”

A ‘vital resource’ for dermatology and oncology

Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D., (OHSU)
Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D., (OHSU)

Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Dermatology in the OHSU School of Medicine and director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s Melanoma Program, says to date, the Ettelson endowment has allowed the department to recognize and support the research projects of more than 13 faculty members with distinction.

“The Ettelson endowment is a vital resource for our departmental research mission. This fund has supported some of our most promising research and new ideas in the field of dermatology,” Leachman says. “We are incredibly grateful for the continued support from the Ettelson family. This latest gift is the largest gift the department of dermatology has received.”

Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research, says the Ettelsons were “remarkable people and remarkably generous. 

Brian Druker, M.D.
Brian Druker, M.D. (OHSU)

“When George passed away in 2007 from AML, Helene established this endowment. When she passed away earlier this year, her estate added greatly to it,” he says. “In keeping with Helene’s wishes, her generosity is allowing us to endow a professorship for AML research, which will be a complement to the endowed research fund she established in George’s name.”

Acute myeloid leukemia is a complex form of blood cancer, and Druker says it is “widely felt that it is caused by multiple genetic mutations, not a single mutation.

“For that reason, intense research has been required to get at the core of this deadly disease and find out what makes it tick,” he says. “This combination of faculty support and research funding will be critical as we continue our focus on this cancer. Our hope is that soon, Helene and George’s generosity will help spare others from this disease.”

About the Ettelson family

Born in San Francisco, Helene was a former model, accomplished bridge player and the daughter of the late William Greenbach, whose father built hotels in San Francisco. George, a businessman, was born in Portland to Jesse Ettelson, M.D., who taught at the OHSU outpatient clinic, and Florence Wolfe Ettelson, whose father was a founder of the renowned Portland department store Lipman Wolfe & Co.

After their marriage, the couple settled in San Francisco and started their family there, yet they always maintained a connection to Portland and to George’s family.

“My dad never forgot his roots in Portland,” Lowenstein says. “He had many fond memories of childhood and visited family and friends frequently. He was very connected to the Portland community, and as a result, made it a priority to give back to OHSU.”

Although Lowenstein never knew her Portland grandparents, who died when she was very young, her father spoke fondly about them.

“My grandfather, Dr. Jesse Ettelson, was a Portland pioneer, a leader in the Jewish community and very passionate about the field of dermatology,” she says. “He was a doctor ahead of his time and always very interested in new innovations and therapies. Evidently, his patients adored him.”

She adds, “My parents created the fund to honor his legacy and life’s work. What’s exciting is that his work and vision for the future lives on.”

‘I feel like I won the lottery to have had parents like mine’

Lowenstein is hopeful about the impact her parents' philanthropy will have on OHSU and Oregonians for generations to come.

“My mom was devoted to philanthropy in the field of medicine and was very generous with her time for numerous institutions, in both California and Oregon,” Lowenstein says. “She had extensive volunteer hospital experience at California Pacific Medical Center, and that experience inspired her to dedicate her time, energy and philanthropy toward improving the patient experience, access to care, treatments and patient outcomes.”

“I feel like I won the lottery to have had parents like mine.”

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