Major lifetime gift establishes scholarly society

It’s been seven years since Dick Morse, MD, a UW alum and retired child psychiatrist, and his lifelong partner, Lawrence M. Connor, MSW, a retired social worker, established an $11 million (now worth an estimated $17 million) planned estate gift for the Morse Society — a multidisciplinary graduate fellowship program at the Waisman Center. However, shortly thereafter, the New Orleans residents generously decided to launch the society during their lifetime so they could be involved with the program and witness the impact of their gift. Since 2012, Morse and Connor contribute annually to the center to provide a partial stipend and tuition for a select group of graduate and postdoctoral students doing research in the areas of childhood mental illness, well-being, and developmental disabilities. They recently announced they are increasing their current support of the Morse Scholars by more than $800,000.

Richard Morse, MD, and Lawrence Connor, MSW near their home in New Orleans.
Richard Morse, MD, and Lawrence Connor, MSW near their home in New Orleans.

The focus of the Morse Society is to generate conversation across multiple disciplines. “When looking at the whole matrix of development, I think it’s very narrow to look
at it just from child psychiatry,” Morse says. “Everything from motor functions and intelligence through mental health and social adaptation — unless these are integrated,
you don’t have a functioning child growing into a functioning adult. It’s the same brain regulating all of it.”

Morse says the ideal place for this program had to be a community that was small enough for scholars to see each other every week and large enough to represent a diverse
breadth of research. He was particularly drawn to the multidisciplinary nature of the Waisman Center. In addition to encouraging further research in each scholar’s respective area, the program is designed to foster collaborations and build community. Morse believes that frequently socializing with other members of an academic cohort is integral. “For me, it’s where half of my education was,” he says. With this in mind, a portion of the funds have been allocated to provide a monthly dinner for scholars to get together, talk about research, and listen to presentations.

“As a scholar, the dinners were an opportunity to build a research community around childhood mental health and developmental conditions,” says Brittany Travers, PhD,
a former Morse scholar. Travers is an assistant professor of kinesiology at UW–Madison and Waisman Center investigator who researches motor and brain development
in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. She co-directs the Morse Scholars program with Seth Pollak, PhD, a professor of psychology and Waisman Center investigator. “The dinners were the perfect opportunity to learn from and debate with my peers,” Travers says. “I learned how to present my research to interdisciplinary audiences, a skill which I very much value in my current position.”

Morse wanted to dedicate this money to child development and psychiatry research because it is often underfunded. By supporting the next generation of researchers, this fellowship will hopefully raise awareness and a better understanding of children’s needs and rights and improve overall health and well-being.

Morse is a 1967 graduate of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. What surprised him the most during his time at the UW was the sense of community among the students. This was different from his experiences at other universities. “When I got to Wisconsin, I was amazed to see the quality of interpersonal connection there, and I was astounded to see a university that was so dialectical,” he says.

Morse’s parents also graduated from the UW — his father in 1925 and his mother in 1926. A lawyer and social worker respectively, they dedicated their careers to improving outcomes for children. Therefore, this additional gift to the Morse Scholars is to honor them and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his family’s involvement with the UW. The additional money, Morse says, will ensure continued partial funding of at least four doctoral students every year, and supported monthly dinners that include two postdoctoral researchers, and a junior and senior faculty member in addition to the doctoral students.

“Larry and I were extremely impressed with the quality of communication and camaraderie among the Morse scholars,” Morse says of the scholars present at the 2018
Morse Society alumni dinner. “They had a tremendously good knowledge of each other and each other’s work.” Since the program was initiated, it has funded 11 scholars,
including four current students. Seth Pollak, PhD, a co-director of the Morse Society since its inception, describes Morse as an extremely erudite and thoughtful person. “He really had a grand vision of what young trainees needed to advance knowledge about developmental issues,” he says. “The whole idea is that maybe new knowledge will emerge if you can start integrating ideas or methods from other fields. Every year, there’s a new class of Morse fellows and they’re just the most marvelous young people to work with.”