A Lecture, A Love Story

  • Feature Story

A Lecture, A Love Story

by 

Sara Cody
John B. Bidwell (Photo provided by Bidwell family)

The annual Margaret Bidwell Memorial Lecture brings BCS community together to learn more about brain diseases and disorders

Standing before a packed auditorium filled with members of the BCS community, György Buzsáki, Professor of Neuroscience at NYU School of Medicine, addressed the crowd about his research on neural syntax, or how the brain processes and organizes sensory information to support cognitive function. Buzsáki was this year’s distinguished guest speaker for the Margaret Bidwell Memorial Lecture. The lecture, part of the MIT Colloquium on the Brain and Cognition series, was made possible by a gift established in 1997 by John B. Bidwell (MIT SB 1963, MCP 1966), in honor of his late wife.

“John was very connected to the educational mission of the Institute,” says Prof. Mriganka Sur, Newton Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Simons Center for the Social Brain, who oversaw the gift during his time as Department Head of BCS. “He tapped into his life savings to establish this lecture as a heartfelt way to remember his beloved wife’s legacy. It is a shining example of the impact that gifts of all sizes can have on the department”

In the early 1950s, Margaret was a widowed single mother of two young children working at the Hingham Ammunitions Depot, a local naval base. John was stationed there as an active member in the Navy, where he eventually attained the rank of captain. According to John’s stepchildren Edward Donlon and Mary Gegler, the couple “balanced each other beautifully.” Margaret and John married in 1960.

Throughout his life, John fostered a deep connection to MIT and a lifelong love of learning. He had earned his first Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1954, and later attended MIT, earning a second Bachelor’s degree in economics and a Master’s degree in urban planning. John stayed on at MIT after his graduate studies, working in the urban planning department until his retirement in 1998.

“My mother was so supportive of John’s desire to further his education,” remembers Gegler. “Sometimes he would lose track of time, studying on campus until late into the night. My mother would drive to Cambridge from our home in Milton to pick him up, no matter how late it was.”

In 1981, Margaret was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that impacts the neurons that control muscle movement. As her health declined, John became her primary caretaker and advocate until her death in 1983. After years of careful research, John decided how he wanted to memorialize his wife as he neared retirement. John and his family had witnessed the cognitive impact that ALS had on Margaret. John wanted his gift to support basic science research in the area of brain disorders, which is how he ultimately selected BCS to receive his gift. And that’s when he approached Sur in BCS.

“We discussed options for his gift to the department, and I suggested a lecture series centered on brain disorders and diseases endowed in his wife’s name,” says Sur. “We don’t have a medical school at MIT, but we are basic scientists with a deep connection to these diseases, and this was our first focused effort to bring our faculty and students together with experts in the field of brain disorders. It paved the way for some of our most successful initiatives, like the Simons Center for the Social Brain and the MIT Aging Brain Initiative.”

John attended the lectures until his death in 2017. Donlon and Gegler have continued the family tradition by attending the lecture as their schedules allow, and each year they are blown away by the scope of the event, noting their appreciation that John created a meaningful lasting memory of their mother.

“John’s love for MIT was boundless, and he felt confident that the research and community and that it was the best way to establish a lasting legacy in our mother’s legacy,” says Donlon. “While we aren’t scientists ourselves and may not understand the topics of the lectures, the important thing is that someone in the audience does, and the impact of that is enormous. It really was a perfect act of love for our family that upholds John’s belief that you could enrich your life through education.”

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