Seeing Beyond a Single Career: Dr. and Mrs. Ernest J. Ferris, M.D.


Dr. Ferris says our specialty could take a cue from the philanthropy of Wilhelm Roentgen.

"When he discovered X-rays in 1895 he was 50 years old-not a young man. He was an assistant professor and wasn't paid very well," Dr. Ferris explains. Indeed, Roentgen's discovery came in part because he was short on funds: "As a side job, he would paint Crooke tubes made by Siemens and sell them. But because he wasn't allowed to moonlight, he would turn down the lights very low in his room at night." The dim lighting helped him see the serendipitous fluorescence that marked his discovery.

"Roentgen received the Nobel Prize, and at that time the prize was $75,000, a great sum of money. But he did not keep that money, even though he was not a wealthy man. He gave it to the institution," said Dr. Ferris. "Moreover, he could have patented X-ray and made an enormous amount of money. But he didn't patent it, because he felt that this was his contribution to medicine and to society. He was thoughtful enough to contribute in a philanthropic way a huge sum of money, even though he didn't have a lot of money, back into education."

Dr. Ferris, who himself came from a family of modest means that highly valued education—his father worked to support him and several of his siblings through medical school and other advanced learning—has had a long career in radiology. He has witnessed the discovery of exciting new techniques and sees the potential of modalities like MR. "Being able to see the molecular makeup of what we're visualizing is going to be more valuable in the future, and radiology is going to change," he said.

Dr. Ferris and his wife, Alice, have set up a charitable trust that provides for his children with payments of accumulated interest for several years and then leave the remainder for RSNA.

"I have four children," explained Dr. Ferris. "And certainly when I and my wife pass, we want to leave something for them. But there's an old saying—you should leave them enough that they can do something, but not so much that they can do nothing."

"I'm not a wealthy guy," Dr. Ferris continued. "I'm in academics so the income levels are modest. But I think the reason my wife and I are doing this is that we can control, even when we're not here, what happens to our finances."

Dr. and Mrs. Ferris have not, however, named a specific designation for the funds. "I did that intentionally," Dr. Ferris explained. "I have no idea what RSNA will be like some years from now when I'm not here, and what their needs are. If you really want to be philanthropic, you give to a society and you let them—because they know better—fill the needs they have at that time."

Our specialty is great because its members have supported it, says Dr. Ferris, and one doesn't have to be wealthy to leave a legacy. "We're here for a flash of a second," he said. Things we have, our luxuries, we're only using them for a short period of time. In this way I'm doing my obligation to both my children and to a society that has so much to do with the education of medicine."

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