University of Louisville snags $5 million gift for environmental health institute

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi has snagged the first major gift of her tenure: $5 million from a branch of Louisville’s Brown family for an institute that will study how environmental factors affect human health.

The gift from the family foundation of Owsley Brown II, the late chief executive of Louisville-based Brown-Forman Corp., will establish the Envirome Institute within U of L’s School of Medicine.

Aruni Bhatnagar, a U of L professor who researches the influence of the environment on heart disease, will lead the institute, which will be based at U of L’s Cardiovascular Innovation Institute downtown.

Christina Lee Brown, Owsley Brown’s widow, said she hopes the Envirome Institute fosters a broader understanding of health and “how we are all interconnected and absolutely interdependent.”

“Health is state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing – and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity,” said Brown, 71.

Brown announced the gift Tuesday, flanked by Bendapudi and Brown's daughter Augusta Brown Holland and sons-in-law, Gill Holland and Matthew Barzun.  


The gift is an early win for Bendapudi, who started at U of L on May 15 with a mandate to get the university’s lagging fundraising back on track.

“We are a fabulous institution, and our best days are ahead of us, and this (gift) is a foundation,” Bendapudi said.  

U of L had been without a permanent leader since 2016, when James Ramsey was forced to resign.

Ramsey was prodigious fundraiser, announcing individual gifts of $25 million and $10 million later in his tenure, but the university is suing him for how he managed donated funds through the U of L Foundation.

Meanwhile pledges from big donors like Brown have been scarce since Ramsey’s exit.

“It is the perfect time to relaunch our community’s strong participation and involvement with the University of Louisville and to welcome Dr. Neeli Bendapudi,” said Brown, adding that it is the biggest gift her family has made to U of L.

The $5 million will be drawn over five years, Brown said.

Rather than endowing the gift and using only investment returns to provide perpetual support for the institute, Bhatnagar said the gift will be spent down to support the institute’s operations in its early years.

“This is just seed money to get started,” Bhatnagar said.

He said five or six faculty members could be hired.

Bhatnagar said the institute will investigate how environmental factors affect health and risks for diseases. He gave an example of someone who is committed to walking but who lives in an environment that lacks sidewalks.

“We have to understand how personal environments interact with social environments and natural environments all together to be able to understand what human disease risk is and what human health is,” he said.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822,, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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Chris Otts reports for about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and