Education empowers beyond an individual student— it can change the world.
In 1979, Dr. George Bannayan, a tenured professor of pathology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, decided to take a sabbatical. Only this time, it wasn’t to conduct research or write a book as is the norm in academia. Instead, he was headed for war-torn Beirut, volunteering to teach almost the entire pathology course at the American University of Beirut (AUB) on his own for the year. 1979 marked the height of the Lebanese Civil War and with the country rocked by violence daily, professors were hard to come by at AUB. “I felt that the students should not suffer for something they could not control,” Dr. Bannayan reflects. “The opportunity to teach for those terms is one of the periods I am most proud of in my career.”
But he was not alone. Odette Bannayan (née Shoushanian) who has always been by her husband’s side is just as committed. “Access to education is at the forefront of our philanthropy,” she explains. “Education empowers beyond an individual student— it can change the world.”
True to that sentiment, she didn’t hesitate to join him in Beirut, despite the risks and uncertainties. In fact, the couple have shared many such proud moments since Dr. Bannayan received his medical degree in 1957 from the American University of Beirut.
Born to Armenian parents in different cities and worlds apart, Dr. Bannayan in Jerusalem, and Mrs. Bannayan in Beirut, met at the American University of Beirut. At the time, his future wife was doing secretarial work on campus, while he pursued medicine. Despite their shared heritage, they came from distinct backgrounds. Dr. Bannayan belonged to one of the oldest Armenian families of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem but immigrated to Amman, Jordan, in 1948 with his family before studying in Beirut two years later. Mrs. Bannayan was born and raised in Beirut, the daughter of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Despite the differences in their Armenian experiences, both recognized AGBU as a unifying organization in their communities. “Growing up, I became aware of the many great AGBU philanthropic deeds,” Mrs. Bannayan recalls. Committed not only to education, but also to programs that promote the Armenian heritage worldwide, the Bannayans have been generous AGBU supporters for almost four decades.
It was Dr. Bannayan’s career that took the family across the Atlantic to the United States. In 1966, the Bannayans left the Middle East with their daughter and settled first in Colorado, then Maryland, followed by New York, and finally in Texas. In each state, his leadership heralded the success of the institutions he served, being known for his dedication to his patients, students, and teams of researchers. A renowned physician and researcher of anatomic and clinical pathology, with an expertise in kidney and solid organ transplantation, Dr. Bannayan published a study in 1971 in the journal of Archives of Pathology, that isolated a previously undescribed syndrome. In 1982, it was named the Bannayan Syndrome, also known as the Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba Syndrome. For his countless contributions as a medical director, professor, researcher and physician, Dr. Bannayan was honored with the Gift of Life Award from the National Kidney Foundation in 2003. Then, in 2016, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which recognizes native or naturalized American citizens who have made a significant impact on their communities through a life of service and celebrates honorees’ ethnic ancestry as well as American values.
Although he retired in 2015, Dr. Bannayan worked as parttime faculty in the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Health Science Center until 2017. In the face of all of his success, his countless publications and honors, the generations of students he impacted with his scholarship and dedication, the year 1979 in Beirut with Mrs. Bannayan stands out most. “I think of the students, and I smile knowing that my education did not just serve me, but was multiplied among them.”