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Yale and Donaghue partnership treats research advances as a practical matter

Like pathbreaking creator, foundation ventures into uncharted research territory

Ethel Donaghue
Ethel Donaghue(1896-1989)

When the trustees and staff of the West Hartford, Conn.-based Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation meet to make final decisions on the grant proposals they receive, they use a variety of criteria, but one—known at Donaghue as the “but for” test—best captures the foundation’s unique philanthropic vision.

“But for the availability of Donaghue Foundation support,” the foundation’s guidelines read, “what will become of the proposal?”

For the more than 140 faculty members and fellows at the School of Medicine who have received over $30 million in grants and fellowships from the foundation since its founding in 1991—often for unconventional but promising clinical research not well supported by other funding sources—the answer is obvious: But for the Donaghue Foundation’s long-standing and generous relationship with Yale, entire lines of ground-breaking research with real-world impact on the delivery of health care would never have been undertaken.

Ethel Donaghue, one of Connecticut’s first female lawyers, chose her language carefully, stating in her will that the foundation’s mission would be to support research “of practical benefit to the preservation, maintenance and improvement of human life.” The trust she bequeathed to endow the foundation, more than $50 million, was intended not to advance knowledge for its own sake, but to prevent the kind of suffering she had witnessed in her own parents, the organization’s namesakes. Her father, Patrick, was an Irish immigrant who built a fortune, only to have his life cut short by heart disease. Her mother, Catherine Weldon Donaghue, died of cancer in their grand Hartford house.

The foundation, with over $67 million in assets, has distributed nearly $60 million in grants since its inception, including $3.4 million in 2004.

When asked about the foundation’s support for the School of Medicine, Raymond S. Andrews Jr., one of the foundation’s two trustees, offers a straightforward reply: “It’s what Ethel Donaghue would have done.”

The wishes of “Miss Donaghue” are invoked frequently, respectfully and affectionately by Andrews, but Donaghue’s aims have been realized at Yale over the years in ways that she perhaps could not have imagined. For example, the foundation has funded studies of delirium in the elderly as well as predictors of metastatic breast cancer, and it provided the seed money for the Donaghue Women’s Health Investigator Program at Yale (see “Program Aims to Close the Gender Gap in Medical Research”).

Yale has also been the recipient of several major grants under the foundation’s aptly named Practical Benefit Initiative (PBI). The PBI projects are “the ones with the most risk,” says Executive Director Lynne Garner, Ph.D., as they tend to be large-scale initiatives that venture into new research realms. As with all proposals, she says, if a project could be easily funded elsewhere it will probably be turned down, but an inspired, outside-the-box request might gain support from the foundation.

Such projects can be harder to evaluate than conventional bench science, but the foundation’s impact on day-to-day health care is magnified by supporting them, says Sheilah B. Rostow, the representative of the foundation’s institutional trustee, Bank of America, who points with pride to a newly launched $1 million PBI patient safety initiative as an example.

The School of Medicine has also received grants under the foundation’s Research in Clinical and Community Health Issues and Donaghue Investigator programs. The latter is unique in its flexibility, allowing investigators to pursue the most promising avenues for arriving at a practical outcome.

“The Donaghue Foundation is a unique resource for Connecticut. Its focus on improving the quality of life is similar to our own,” says Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean of the medical school. “We are honored to have such a long-standing relationship, and we are inspired by the foundation’s support of such a broad range of projects, which has had an impact on many aspects of our mission.”

Andrews sees the foundation’s relationship to Yale as a mutual one, in that academic medical centers like Yale are critical to the foundation’s own mission. Thanks to the foundation’s support, he says with a smile, “they are talking about ‘practical benefit’ at Yale today.”

Miss Donaghue would be pleased.