MVP: Gift of William Bates, Jr., Supports Young Scientists, Advances Alzheimer’s Research, and Connects to Family Heritage

By giving to the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research (CNDR), William Bates, Jr., has become one of Penn Medicine’s Most Versatile Players. Among his gift’s many roles: A tribute to his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth, who died from Alzheimer’s disease. A contribution to a cure. A strike against the escalating crisis in research funding for young scientists. And, more unexpectedly, a renewal of his lifelong connection to Penn.

In 2008, Mr. Bates established the Bates Family Travel Fellowship, an endowed fund supporting postdoctoral fellows at the CNDR. Conference attendance is a professional necessity for these young scholars, but often they cannot afford the associated expenses. This award enables recipients to travel and attend meetings with top scientists from around the world, fostering the intellectual collaboration needed to advance a cure.

Given decreased federal dollars for science, gifts like this are more crucial than ever. Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can fund just half of viable proposals, leaving many promising ideas – and careers – unrealized.

“We have a serious risk of losing the most important resource that we have, which is this brain trust, the talent and the creative energies of this generation of scientists,” said NIH director Francis Collins.

As home to the largest Biomedical Graduate Studies program in the nation, Penn educates the researchers who will meet the biggest scientific challenges of the coming decades, including the urgent search for an Alzheimer’s cure. Today, five million Americans suffer from the disease; by 2050, that number is projected to grow to 14 million.

Federal cutbacks mean that further progress depends increasingly on the philanthropy of friends like Mr. Bates, who takes the mission of Penn’s young scientists seriously – and very personally. “I don’t think anything would please me more than to see a breakthrough in my lifetime,” he said.


William Bates, Sr., chief surgeon at both Graduate Hospital and Penn Presbyterian

For Mr. Bates, a personal connection to Penn Medicine is nearly a birthright. His father, William, earned both his undergraduate and medical degrees from Penn; his mother, her nursing degree. During World War I, his parents were part of a Penn initiative to establish wartime medical facilities in France.

After the war, Dr. Bates set up his medical practice in Philadelphia, eventually becoming chief surgeon at both Graduate Hospital and Penn Presbyterian. Mr. Bates vividly recalls the telephone – “always ringing” – next to his father’s seat at the dinner table.

Mr. Bates’s 45-year career in banking was highlighted by his becoming vice chairman of the Philadelphia National Bank (now Wells Fargo) and at the same time serving a term as chairman of the board of VISA, the credit card organization. He “retired” at 65, only to launch Consumer Loan Services, a first-of-its-kind consulting firm serving small lenders. Within five years, the company grew from a single room furnished with a folding table and chairs to a 200-employee operation.

But his well-earned retirement was overshadowed by his wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. After her death in 2006, the memory of her suffering “became an overwhelming desire to try to do some good.” This desire is shared by Mr. Bates’s two sons, William and Jeffrey, who have pledged to continue support for the CNDR past his lifetime.

For Mr. Bates, philanthropy has yielded new connections to Penn. Over the years he has met with CNDR directors Drs. Virginia Lee and John Trojanowski and the recipients of the travel award. “I get so much pleasure from seeing these young people at the beginning of their careers, with all of it ahead of them,” he said.

Supporting Penn’s next generation of scientists also led Mr. Bates to recover a little piece of his own history. With the help of Penn Medicine’s development staff, he located a portrait of his father that once hung in the lobby of Graduate Hospital. Today, the portrait resides in his home.
At 92, Mr. Bates has an extraordinary connection to Penn’s past. But the CNDR’s search for an Alzheimer’s cure keeps him looking to the future. “I hope I’m still here when this puzzle is solved,” he said. “It would be the most wonderful gift I could have.”

To learn more about how to support the Institute on Aging contact Aubre Naughton, Penn Medicine Development, at 215.898.9174 or aubren@upenn.edu.

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