A surprise gift to help millions

UC Davis Health today announced receiving a $2.6 million gift from the estate of the late Robert H. Putnam to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

The gift establishes the Robert H. Putnam Endowed Chair in Bipolar Disorders Research and the Dwight Swaback, M.D. Bipolar Disorders Research Fund  –  the latter of which is named after a retired Sacramento-area psychiatrist who was highly respected by Putnam and began his career in partnership with UC Davis.

“We are grateful to Robert Putnam for this important gift, which will help UC Davis lead advances in the understanding of the causes and treatments for bipolar disorders and also expand our research excellence about other illnesses,” said Robert Hales, professor and chair of the department.

Approximately 1.8 percent of the population  –  or nearly two in every 100 people – has a bipolar illness. But Hales explained that studying bipolar disorders has an impact far beyond helping only those who suffer from them or know someone who does. That’s because bipolar disorders frequently occur in people who suffer from other illnesses as well, such as anxiety disorders and substance-abuse disorders. So while researching one type of illness, UC Davis Health will gain insight into several others.

To maximize this ripple effect, the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences plans to use $2 million of the gift to establish the endowed chair position that will be filled by a child psychiatrist with expertise in bipolar disorders. Expected to be filled by 2018, this position will also partner with faculty at the UC Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders), the department’s Early Psychosis Program and other investigators studying related psychiatric disorders.

With the remaining funds, the Dwight Swaback, M.D. Bipolar Disorders Research Fund will support pilot studies in bipolar research for early career investigators.

“There is a stigma in our society about being treated by psychiatrists,” Hales said. “But Putnam’s gift makes a point that, just like when you see a doctor for a physical illness, treatment can make a real difference in a person’s life and mental health. And with this gift, we will be able to help people even more.”

A supporter of education, research in Sacramento and beyond

Robert “Bob” Putnam grew up around St. Paul, Minnesota. He studied political science and art at the University of Minnesota, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1968 and going on to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves until 1970.

Shortly after that, Putnam moved to Sacramento, Calif., for the better climate and opportunities in the Golden State. He worked a number of jobs, including for the state of California. He enjoyed the political and cultural activities in Sacramento and was an active member of the community. He loved the redwoods and the Northern California coast and purchased a house and lot on which to build a dream home in Crescent City, Calif.  

Putnam was a committed and generous supporter of many political, charitable and educational organizations during his life and after his passing. In 1999, he visited UC Davis Heath for a tour of the Sacramento campus and the psychiatry and behavioral science department. During his visit, he indicated a desire to make a financial contribution to the field of psychiatry. However, he did not provide any details about the size of the gift or that it would go to the university. In addition to UC Davis, Putnam has provided a number of substantial gifts to Sacramento-area and national organizations through his trust, including the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento City College Art Department and the Sacramento SPCA.

Helping people live happier lives

The surprise and gratitude for Putnam’s gift extends well beyond UC Davis. When the university’s planned giving office first notified Dwight Swaback about the gift, part of which was named in his honor, he was so shocked that he thought it might be a prank call.

“I was amazed and in complete disbelief,” Swaback said. “But the gentleman on the phone was saying important things, so I talked with him longer and realized ‘Wow, this is real.’

 “And now I am deeply honored that this fund will be created in my name, particularly because it is going to be used for bipolar disorders, which was a big part of my practice and affects millions of people around the world,” he said.

Shortly after completing his residency at the University of Colorado in 1969, Swaback was recruited to the Sacramento area by Donald Langsley, the founding chair of UC Davis’ department of psychiatry. Swaback then served as a psychiatrist in organizations that worked in partnership with UC Davis Health, such as South Area Community Mental Health Service, Central California Psychiatric Society and in private practice and in a number of managerial roles. Throughout his career, he stayed in touch with the university through seminars and other professional meetings.

“UC Davis Health is uniquely positioned to work very well on mental health issues,” he said. “In the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, for example, Dr. Hales has brought together many top experts, and the department has grown and grown, making more innovation possible. And it will keep doing that, especially with the help of generous donors like Mr. Putnam.”

After retiring six times, Swaback finally decided to stick with retirement in January of 2016. When he looks back on his long career, he feels pleased that there were many ways he was able to help hundreds of people live happier lives – a tradition he hopes Putnam’s legacy will continue.

“Gifts like this one are so important in helping people,” he said. “Because as treatments become more and more effective, and word gets around about the effectiveness of treatment, people will be more inclined to make use of the help that is available, and they will live better lives because of it.”