Elisabeth Severance was born in 1863 to Louis Severance and Fanny Benedict Severance. Originally from Cleveland, Louis' early career as a wildcat oil well driller in Titusville, Pennsylvania led to his becoming the first secretary/treasurer of Standard Oil. Fanny Benedict, originally from Elyria, Ohio, died a few years after Elisabeth's birth. Elisabeth and her brother John Long Severance were raised by their father's brother Solon Severance and his wife Emily with their children. Elisabeth's father later married Anna Harkness, whose fortune added greatly to the family wealth that Elisabeth and her brother inherited upon their father's death.
Elisabeth married Dr. Dudley P. Allen, a brilliant and innovative surgeon who went on to become the head of the department of surgery at Lakeside Hospital (known now as University Hospitals Of Cleveland). When Dudley died (ironically from complications of a hiatal hernia which had plagued him throughout his life, something easily fixed surgically today) Elisabeth had St. Luke's Hospital built to honor his memory. She also funded the Allen Memorial Hospital and the Allen Art Museum, both in Oberlin, Ohio (where Dudley had attended Oberlin College and where his parents lived) in his memory.
In 1917, Elisabeth married Francis Fleury Prentiss. Widowed again in 1938, Elisabeth executed a series of trust agreements and a will in January of 1939 which created The Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation. The Foundation was funded and became active upon her death in 1944.
Originally, half the income from the Prentiss Foundation went directly to fund programs at St. Luke's Hospital for as long as it remained a not-for-profit facility, and half was to be distributed by the Foundation's Board of Managers within the scope of the Foundation's objectives. When St. Luke's was bought out by a for-profit healthcare chain in the mid-1990's, all the funds of the Foundation became available for distribution at the discretion of the Board.
As described in the original Trust Agreement, the Board of Managers of the Foundation consists of five "public-spirited citizens" who serve unlimited terms without compensation. The Foundation has no employees. National City Bank acts as trustee and provides support services and a Secretary to the Foundation.