Edward Avedisian, left, and Dr. Aram Chobanian donning white coats and hats with their names on it.

BOSTON — By now, most people have heard the story of the incredible donation of $100 million by Edward Avedisian to the Boston University School of Medicine, and its renaming as the Boston University Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine.

What is even more incredible is the humility of Avedisian and Dr. Aram Chobanian, childhood friends from back in Rhode Island and descendants of the Armenian Genocide, both of whom reached stratospheric heights in their fields. What is more, neither hogs the limelight yet both make life better for the world in general.

Chobanian is no stranger to Boston University; the world renowned cardiologist was named dean of the School of Medicine in 1988, dean of the Boston University Medical Campus in 1996 and appointed interim president of the university in 2003, and president in 2005.

Avedisian has been a musician of renown in the Boston classical music community, performing for three decades with the Boston Pops and 43 years with the Boston Ballet Orchestra as a clarinetist. He has also taught clarinet at the university level and then made it his mission to donate his fortune, which he made through incredible investment acumen.

“It’s a wonderful feeling in one way,” said Chobanian. “We were friends and [with] family history that goes back more than a century.”

As for the names that will now grace the name of medical school, Chobanian said, “It is nice to see our friendship cemented this way. And it is nice to see Armenians being recognized.”

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That is a point both he and Avedisian stressed, the need for Armenians in the public eye to make more frequent and larger donations.

Chobanian simply described his friend as “very thoughtful” when it comes to donations. Avedisian’s previous large donation was to the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), which again did not include his name, but that of another friend and hero, Dr. Vartan Gregorian.

Similarly, when he made large donations to the American University of Armenia, he put the names of his parents (Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian) or his siblings (Paul Avedisian, Paramaz Avedisian and Zvart Avedisian Onanian), on the buildings he funded.

“It is wonderful what he is doing in that regard,” Chobanian said. “To be able to honor our predecessors who were our heroes and role models,” he said, is right.

Avedisian deflected all complements, suggesting that he “can’t compare” to Chobanian. “I’m just signing the checks. It’s a lot easier that curing hypertension,” he replied.

Interviewed last week, both were humble and stressed the importance of sharing one’s wealth and lifting up those in need.

University President Robert A. Brown called it “one of the most remarkable grants in the history of higher education” at a private signing ceremony at his residence in late August to accept the gift and formalize the school’s name change.

The $100-million gift will be divided three ways: $50 million to support scholarships for medical students, $25 million to support endowed professorships and $25 million to the Avedisian Fund for Excellence to keep the school at the forefront of research and teaching.

According to the school, Avedisian’s gift “will approximately double the endowed scholarship aid we can offer.”

In addition, an endowed professorship from the fund will be created in the name of Richard K. Babayan, a BU School of Medicine professor and chair emeritus of urology and former chief of urology at Boston Medical Center.

Edward Avedisian, left, and Dr. Aram Chobanian

Medical School Debt

Chobanian, a cardiologist who is a pioneer in hypertension research, was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Hypertension of the American Heart Association.

He was philosophical about the cost of medical schools, especially if it means not accepting a student for lack of funds. He said private medical schools, such as Boston University, without funding from the state, are very expensive to operate and therefore they pass on the cost to students. “All through my career, I worried about tuitions and scholarships,” he said.

He stressed that excluding students based on their financial abilities is wrong. “You may be excluding people who could be good physicians,” he said.

Instead, he said the graduates of the medical school need to reflect the society and the world at large.

“It is important to get people there who can do the work and not shy away from careers in primary medicine. There are so many openings and needs,” he added.

(A September 2021 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation noted that 83.7 million people in the U.S. live in a designated primary-care health professional shortage area (HPSA), and more than 14,800 practitioners are needed to remove the HPSA designation.)

The lowest tuition rates, he continued, are those at state schools. “It is a disadvantage for a medical school if they are not getting a well-rounded candidate,” who might not apply because of worry about the cost of tuition.

Currently the tuition for the BU medical school is around $100,000 annually, a figure that is comparable to other medical schools in the area, but double that of the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, a public university.

Chobanian noted that he is a very strong advocate for medical education.  “Despite all the issues and the economic aspects of medicine and the business part overtaking some of the other aspects,” it is “still a wonderful program.”

In fact, he is delighted that his granddaughter just graduated from the medical school in May.

“It’s probably a good example of how I feel about” the importance of a medical education, he said.

“Some physicians are so worn out that they are not positive” about continuing their work, Chobanian said, with a sigh. He added, “I don’t think there is a better career.”

Avedisian concurred with Chobanian about the cost of education. “It is an opportunity for them to get an education and reduce the cost and afford them an opportunity to give back,” Avedisian said. “It is not the end of anything but just the beginning.”

Similarly, Avedisian is concerned with the recipients of care.

“It is a good way to do something,” Avedisian said, of his donation, especially because of the leadership of Dr. Chobanian of that school, as well as of Boston University itself, and its work in the city of Boston.

A great focus for Avedisian is that BU is affiliated with the former Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center, after its merger with the Boston University Medical Center Hospital. Helping the poor has always been a centerpiece of Avedisian’s philosophy.

“It is in the poorest section of Boston. The people there are hard-pressed to get attention medically,” he said.

The Arts

Chobanian said he was delighted that BU, as a way of thanking the two men for the donation, had created two scholarships in the names of their wives: the Jasmine Chobanian Endowed Fellowship Fund for Visual Arts and the Pamela Avedisian Endowed Fellowship Fund for Performance Music.

Jasmine Chobanian, a respected artist, died in 2014.  She served on the board of the Boston Ballet and was a talented painter who studied at what is now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Pamela Avedisian studied the piano for years and even attended a conservatory for a year before giving it up for a career as a legal secretary.

“The university decided to do it on its own. It’s very special to have Jasmine’s name on the scholarship with the Fine Arts Department. And Pamela is an accomplished musician. The university’s recognition is important,” Chobanian said. “The recognition of our spouses is very heartening to me.”

For Avedisian, BU is also a sort of home. He studied the clarinet there, and other family members attended as well. “I wanted to do something important” for the university, he said in a recent interview. “This is the opportunity.”

He chose BU after becoming entranced with the clarinetist on a recording of the Boston Symphony Orchestra he heard on the radio. “Who is this guy?” the teenage Avedisian asked himself. “I want to study with him.” The musician was Manuel Valerio, a professor at BU’s College of Fine Arts.

In an interview with this newspaper in 2012, Avedisian gave credit to Chobanian for his interest in music: “The credit — or blame — goes to Aram Chobanian who was our next-door neighbor,” he recalled. He was a few years older than Avedisian and a contemporary of his older brother. “Aram played the clarinet. He was like the pace car. My older brother followed him” and then gave it up, only for the younger Avedisian to pick it up.

Edward Avedisian, left, and Dr. Aram Chobanian

Bringing Medical Education to Armenia

Under Chobanian’s tenure as dean of the medical school, in 1991, the Boston University Medical Center/Armenia Medical Partnership program was launched. It has since been renamed as the Charles Mosesian Boston University Medical Center and Republic of Armenia Medical Partnership Program. Dr. Richard Babayan, Professor & Emeritus Chairman in the Department of Urology, is director.

Chobanian explained that various agreements were signed between BU and the government of Armenia as part of the program, specifically with Yerevan State School of Medicine and work at the Loosavorich Medical Center in Yerevan.

Chobanian recalled that he first went to Armenia in 1970 to give a talk. “It was very much a Soviet state,” he said. “I went back two or three more times before the quake” in 1988. Things shifted gear in 1992 during the Karabakh war for independence. He went on a trip there with US Agency for International Development to evaluate the hospitals and help hospital to hospital. Other components of the program included coordinating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor the workers’ safety at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant outside Yerevan. The program eventually morphed into the BU Armenia program.

Chobanian noted that the physicians trained in Armenia went on to train others in the Newly Independent States, including bringing others from those states to Oakridge, Tenn., for specialty training.

He also singled out the cooperation of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in BU’s efforts in Armenia, especially former associate dean Richard Aghababian.

The program has been halted temporarily due to Covid and then the 2020 war waged by Azerbaijan. It was funded with grants from the USAID, the IAEA, as well as the Lincy Foundation, therefore there was no cost to the university. He stressed proudly, however, that all the physicians went as volunteers.

What’s in a Name

Avedisian stressed that Chobanian was very humble about adding his name to the name of the medical school, saying “I don’t think it’s necessary.”

As a compromise Avedisian struck, the names of both men would be there.

Just don’t call Avedisian a legend. “I’m just me.”

Avedisian expanded on why he wanted the university’s medical school to be the recipient of such a vast sum. He said that the medical school and Chobanian’s leadership of it have “exemplary” and that the latter has contributed so much to the field of hypertension and vascular heart disease.

What makes this donation even more incredible is that Avedisian is not a dotcom millionaire; he made his money through the stock market. Again, just don’t give him any credit. “It is one part luck and the other part is being prepared,” he said.

The mild-mannered and soft-spoken Avedisian is “a risk taker.” He said, “If you don’t take a risk, you can’t get anything.” He added, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It’s as simple as that.”

These two men have much in common other than their Rhode Island roots. They are also both people who will donate large sums and do the work, without much fanfare and certainly without cultivating an aura of specialness.

Avedisian learned humility and a desire to help others from his parents. “They are heroes, my parents. That’s how they lived. They said help other people. When you grow up with that,” he said, you have little choice to be any other way.

His parents were Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian, in whose name he has built buildings for AUA, as well as a K-12 school in the Malatia-Sepastia neighborhood of Yerevan, are always on his mind. He recalled that his father came from Kharpert in the 1900s to the US to make money in construction and return to Western Armenia. He wanted to marry a woman who was educated, he said, and he found exactly who he wanted in Shooshanig, who had been brought up in a German orphanage and was educated. He managed to flee the Armenian Genocide and she did as well, landing first in Beirut. Eventually, the two met in Cuba, married and then moved to the US.

The school is in the very poorest section of the city. Avedisian expressed his delight with the students who have benefitted from his efforts. “The very first graduate” of the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian school graduated summa cum laude from the American University of Armenia. “It is quite remarkable,” he said with delight.

Most of the students from that school continue their education either at AUA or at the French University.

Again, Avedisian boils down his support to the most basic terms: “It is a question of need and assistance.” He decided to “give it a chance and see what happened.”

The donation to NAASR in the name of Vartan Gregorian is still close to Avedisian’s heart. “It opened up so many doors and a lot more support,” he said. With the bigger building, and one that is state-of-the-art, NAASR can do much more, especially when it has the name of Vartan Gregorian, he noted.

He had much praise for the late Gregorian, noting that he had asked that Gregorian speak to some students in Armenia when the two men met. Being “a man of his word,” Gregorian, who had a fully-booked schedule, came and spoke to the students at the Avedisian school for more than one and a half hours.

He also hoped others with similarly deep pockets would make donations on such a scale that would make the news. “Hopefully this will inspire more people” within the Armenian community, Avedisian said.

Not only was Chobanian very positive, but he had a great sense of humor. When asked what his plans for the future were, he laughed and replied, “At age 93, I don’t buy green bananas anymore.”

For now, he is concentrating on doing what makes him happy: writing music. He is currently working with a member of the music faculty on composing a new work. He was thrilled that the piece was recently sung by mezzo-soprano Victoria Avetisyan.

“I’ve always been a music enthusiast. I also try to keep up with the medical stuff” as an observer, he added, enough to “keep my mind active.”

“I’ve had a good life, a wonderful family, a phenomenal wife and wonderful children. I’ve done a lot of things,” he concluded.

Concluded Avedisian, “My work is finished and that’s OK. I’ve done as much as I could.”

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