Each day, a bustling community of 6,000 faculty, students and staff tend to the business of the School of Medicine—teaching the art and science of medicine, studying, taking care of patients and conducting research in one of the world’s leading academic centers.

But to spend an hour with John Anlyan, M.D., a retired thoracic and oncologic surgeon and member of the medical school’s Class of 1945, is to glimpse a more intimate time in the education of young doctors, an era when the first-year class had 46 students and the school’s complement of tenured professors was only a few dozen. “It was just a beautiful experience,” Anlyan says during a phone call from San Rafael, Calif., where he lives with his wife of 60 years, Betty Anlyan.

Born in Egypt to Armenian parents, Anlyan came to Yale as an undergraduate in 1939, as World War II loomed on the horizon. During the war years, Anlyan’s family’s overseas assets were frozen, so he and his younger brothers, William and Frederick, relied on Yale for financial support during their education. William, who graduated with the Yale College Class of 1945W and the medical school’s Class of 1949, went on to become the chancellor of Duke University Medical Center. Frederick, a 1951 alumnus of Yale College, also entered medicine and is now a retired pathologist living on Long Island. John, who graduated from Yale College in 1942, will return to New Haven in June for his 65th college reunion.

“Yale gave me my start,” he says. “It gave all three of us our start.”

In gratitude for the aid Yale provided to John and his brothers at a difficult time in their lives, John and Betty Anlyan made arrangements in 1990 to leave their estate to the School of Medicine, setting in motion the largest-ever alumnus gift to the medical school. Once fully realized, the Anlyans’ pledge could yield more than $50 million. Thanks to their desire to see their philanthropy in action at Yale, they have transferred millions of dollars to the school already. In addition, at Betty Anlyan’s request, their estate will endow a professorship in the humanities at Yale.

John Anlyan would have finished medical school a year earlier had he not contracted tuberculosis at the start of his first year. The disease stranded him in a sanitarium near New Haven—playing poker, as he recalls, with his fellow patients and waiting to be liberated from his confinement. His recollection of medical school in the early 1940s is a parade of larger-than-life professors whose personalities, one gets the sense, were matched at times by that of their student. He recalls Harry Zimmerman, M.D., the eminent neuropathologist and friend of Albert Einstein, as a lively teacher who would go on to become the first dean of the Einstein School of Medicine.

Anlyan and his classmates were also impressed by Milton C. Winternitz, M.D., another professor of pathology who had transformed the medical school during his deanship from 1920 to 1935.

Anlyan remembers him as “a little short guy who was just like dynamite. He made the medical school.” Students called him “Winter” when he wasn’t listening, and a high-spirited Anlyan used the same moniker one morning when passing Winternitz in the hall.

“I said, ‘Good morning, Winter,’” he recalls, his companions falling silent. There was a moment’s pause, and then “he put his arm around me and said, ‘Call me Milt. It’s more informal.’” The tension dissolved in a burst of laughter.

Richard Breck, M.D., a retired geriatrician in Wallingford, Conn., and classmate of Anlyan, remembers Anlyan as a popular student and life of the party. “He was well known for his ability to tell stories and jokes,” Breck recalls.

After medical school, Anlyan completed a surgical internship and residency at the University of Chicago Clinics, then spent two years at Ohio State as a resident in thoracic surgery and graduate student in enzyme chemistry. In 1949, then-surgery Chief Gustaf Lindskog, M.D., invited him back to Yale as an instructor at a salary of $5,000 a year. (“You could hardly live on that,” Anlyan says, “but we had fun.”) After two years he moved to New York, spending the next three years as a Damon Runyon Fellow at the Sloan-Kettering Institute and Memorial Hospital.

In 1957, with John having completed his clinical training and his Navy service, he and Betty set off across the country in a Mercury sedan in search of a suitable place to settle and launch his surgical practice. As he tells it, “I couldn’t stop coughing in L.A.; San Diego was boring. But the minute we hit the Golden Gate, we said, ‘This is it.’” San Francisco became their home.

During John’s long surgical career specializing in cancer treatment, he and Betty invested in California real estate; their bequest of the return from those investments would eventually fuel the growth of the medical school through the construction of Yale’s largest building, the 457,000-square-foot Anlyan Center for Medical Research and Education, which opened in 2003.

The Robert Venturi design, which combines a north and a south building across a central atrium, significantly increased the space available at the medical school for bench science and translational research, provided badly needed facilities for anatomy and histology instruction and included an extensive vivarium, a state-of-the-art magnetic resonance research center and a new auditorium.

Lawrence J. Rizzolo, Ph.D., an associate professor of surgery who teaches anatomy in the Anlyan Center, says that when the Anlyans toured the new building in 2005, John looked down the long third-floor hallway and joked, “This is too stark. I want to give the students something to laugh at.” An avid painter, he provided photographic reproductions of his favorites among the oils he had created to Yale’s Office of Development, which had them framed and displayed them along the corridor. Soon after, Rizzolo says, canvases started arriving—followed by more canvases. Now, the third-floor hallway of the Anlyan Center’s north building is lined with dozens of brightly colored canvases depicting San Francisco scenes, landscapes, flowers and a few portraits. Rizzolo says that since 2003 he has noticed Anlyan’s brush strokes getting broader and his colors brighter. Perhaps in explanation, Anlyan says macular degeneration has limited his sight in recent years.

But the place Yale occupies in Anlyan’s memories and sentiments is undimmed. John has long been involved in alumni and development activities, serving on the Yale Development Board and the last Yale capital campaign, which raised $1.7 billion for the university from 1992 to 1997. The Anlyans are deeply involved in Yale’s current capital campaign, the $3 billion “Yale Tomorrow” fundraising effort.

Yale made a lasting impression on John Anlyan, and his and Betty’s legacy has changed the shape of the medical school in a lasting way. But Anlyan, the most generous alumnus in the school’s history, is self-effacing when he explains his and his wife’s gifts to the School of Medicine. “We don’t have any children,” he says. “What else would you do with money?”