Remembering the life of advocate and philanthropist Gwill York Newman

October 11, 2010

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(AP/file)
PET scan image of a healthy brain

Gwill York Newman’s obituaries character her as a woman dedicated to change when confronted by injustice. In the 1960s she integrated Cleveland’s Junior League club. 

A search for a new life brought her to Chicago -and to the cause that was closest to her heart. Newman’s only son Fred suffered from a mental breakdown in his late teens.  He spent the remaining years of his life shuttled between institutions. After Fred’s death at the age of 22, Newman channeled her grief into a Chicago Sun-Times commentary.  It caught the attention of many.

One was Vi Orr – another mother of a child suffering with mental illness. 

ORR: She just talked as a parent and let out all her anger and all her grief. She had worked so hard to try to find him placements and did so much for him and the community wasn't there providing help.

Newman sought to increase awareness of mental illness – and demanded more research and funding. Facing blame for her son’s mental state, she looked for biological causes Within her family.

Her efforts led her to the Brain Research Foundation in Chicago where eventually became President of the foundation. 

Current Executive Director Terre Sharma says Newman looked to science to break some of the stigmas associated with mental illness.

SHARMA: I lot of the doctors actually put the blame on the mother at that time. They didn't know a lot of information about schizophrenia so they thought it was very environmental ans she she just felt that probably wasn't it. That she had a relatively stable life and then it drive her to look elsewhere to really find out what was behind the schizophrenia.

But it was Newman’s ability to connect with others – her willingness to share her story - that made her a powerful fundraiser for the cause.

SHARMA: She would talk about her personal situation which is actually very rare. She was very open about it and this really drew people in. They saw that she was very passionate about it and everyone loved her was willing to get behind a cause that they may not have been personally touched by this. 

One of her key contributions was raising funds for the first pet scanner in the Midwest. The diagnostic tool allows more thorough inspection of neurological disorders and cancers.  

It was cancer that claimed her life.  Terry Sharma spoke to Newman in her final days. 

SHARMA: What just totally struck me was her enthusiasm and her positive outlook on life even when she was in this dire situation with the cancer that she had had. She was so enthusiastic about research she had actually called to tell me one day, ' I just had my first pet scan' and she was so excited because she was part of that decades ago-getting that built in Illinois and she's now seeing that technology in action today. 

Gwill York Newman died August 30 at the age of 78 at her home in New Mexico. A private memorial will be held for her today in Chicago.