Remembering Mildred Swanson
A small family foundation supports enormous gains in the prevention and treatment of age-related macular degeneration
Richard Northrup, III, Swanson Foundation advisor, with Dr. Howard Petty, whose research examines mechanisms underlying AMD.
Mildred E. Swanson was a career woman at an unlikely time. Born in 1912, she graduated from high school at age 16 with the distinction of valedictorian. One of the first employees of Owens Corning, Toledo, Ohio, she retired as manager of the payroll department after 40 years of service.
"Mildred was an amazing lady," says great nephew Richard C. Northrup, III, a U-M alumnus who resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Unlike many women of her period, Mildred did not marry nor have children. She was a true businesswoman on a career path."
At the age of 85, Ms. Swanson began to suffer diminished vision from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that would progress until her death in 2003, at age 90. The leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 and older, AMD destroys sharp, central vision—making it difficult or impossible to read or recognize faces. "Mildred was very unhappy that she was losing her sight," says Mr. Northrup. "She was discouraged that nothing could be done about it."
Mildred Swanson on the family farm in 1945.
True to Ms. Swanson's enormous spirit of generosity, she established the Mildred E. Swanson Foundation through her estate plan with the dual mission of funding medical research and higher education scholarships— both dear to her heart. Following Ms. Swanson's death, the Foundation was funded in 2004 and is managed by advisors Mr. Northrup, great nephew Michael J. Giesecke, a U-M alumnus, and nephew John R. Giesecke.
As the Foundation explored research concepts, they became interested in funding "orphan" ideas—ideas that appeared promising, but had not received funding. And now, for the past four years, the Foundation has generously supported an AMD research project led by Howard R. Petty, Ph.D., Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and Victor M. Elner, M.D., Ph.D., Ravitz Foundation Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Professor of Pathology.
Ms. Swanson with her brothers, Kenneth, Milton, Stanley, and Glenn.
"We're taking relatively small dollars and marrying them with gifted researchers with a promising idea," says Mr. Northrup. "Our small family foundation has the potential, through those dollars and Drs. Petty and Elner, to have an outsized impact on the world. There's another Aunt Mildred out there. Maybe we can help her."
And, that help is on the way. After years of research, Drs. Petty and Elner have identified mechanisms in the eye that kill retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, key players in the development of AMD.
"A few years ago, it was discovered that Complement Factor H (CFH), an immunological protein, was an important gene relevant to AMD," says Dr. Petty. "We knew there was a correlation, but we didn't understand the mechanism. That was the impetus for this research."
Soon, the team discovered proteins that promote the programmed death of RPE cells in an in vitro model of the process of macular degeneration in the eye.
Further research revealed another important discovery. When CFH was added to the in vitro model, it blocked the death of RPE cells. "These findings suggest that selectively interfering with this mechanism may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of AMD," says Dr. Petty. "This work could lead to identification of a drug that would be useful clinically."
Small family foundations are vital in helping Kellogg achieve its mission of advancing vision research. According to Paul R. Lichter, M.D., F. Bruce Fralick Professor of Ophthalmology and Chair of the U-M Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, "These foundations provide an invaluable opportunity to create the kind of preliminary data that can eventually go on to a large-scale grant."