Jim and Pat Poitras recently committed $20 million to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research to establish the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research.

“We think this is a superb investment,” says Jim, whose dream is “that within a generation there will be some definite, positive outcomes for those who suffer from these disorders.” The Center will support research on bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric illnesses. It will also collaborate with MIT’s Broad Institute and will work with other Boston-based clinical research institutions.

Pat says that her hope is that MIT’s proximity to the world’s top hospitals, and the desire of those at the McGovern Institute to collaborate with those institutions, “will help solve the basic mysteries of major mental illness. While there is no magic bullet and success is not guaranteed, the Center has a great chance to accomplish these goals,” she says.

In 1980, the couple’s own daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while the research they are supporting is unlikely to help her directly, Pat says, “hopefully it will help many, many others in our lifetime.”

An estimated 26 percent of Americans 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But MIT experts predict that within 10 years, there will be big breakthroughs in the treatments of depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Because of this, Pat says, now was the time to make this gift — to give this revolutionary work a push. “We have confidence in the people at MIT. They’re the best in the world, and to have a major neuroscience institute like the McGovern on board with this challenge is fantastic.”

GIVING, A WAY OF LIFE

Jim Poitras grew up in a family where philanthropy was a way of life.

His father, Edward J. Poitras, an electrical engineer and an inventor with dozens of patents, graduated from MIT in 1928.

As a young man, Jim’s Dad, who commuted to the Institute from Salem, MA, attended this school on a full scholarship. MIT even paid his train fare. He told Jim that without MIT’s support, he would not have been so successful and often credited his good fortune entirely to his alma mater.

Over the years, Jim watched his parents become quiet givers not only to MIT, but to many other charitable causes. He learned early that giving was its own reward.

Jim Poitras graduated from MIT in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He began his career at Harvard Medical School, then in 1964, joined Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, where he did research in the cardiovascular physiology laboratory. Soon he began working at the hospital on computer programming and implementation of the computer systems for patient care. In 1979, he left to join Highland Laboratories in Ashland, MA, the family’s manufacturing company that was launched by his father in 1953. When he joined the firm, Jim also took over responsibility for the family’s real estate investments, which he continues to manage.

Married nearly 46 years, Jim and Pat met on a blind date. Later, they raised three daughters: Christine, who teaches English as a second language; Laura, who makes documentary films; and Jennifer, who works in disaster response and planning. Pat, a registered nurse, earned a B.A. in philosophy from Wellesley College and a master’s in social work from Smith.

Now, for pleasure the couple plays duplicate bridge and travels across the country for tournaments. Both are Life Masters. In addition, they are avid bird watchers and often take nature trips with the Massachusetts Audubon Society to places like Costa Rica, Cuba, Morocco, and Alaska. Ardent Boston Red Sox fans, they attend about 15 games a year at Fenway Park.

NO STIGMA

Jim says it was important for the couple to make this gift now, “because we can hopefully see the results in our lifetime.”

Pat hopes that their gift will help to eliminate the stigma of mental illness. “I want it to give people hope that these misunderstood illnesses are being taken seriously in a scientific way — and not in a judgmental way.”

She adds that because of their personal experience with mental illness their giving is in part, a gift to themselves.

“We’re helping a lot of people with wonderful minds to do the work that we want to have done. It’s fulfilling a personal dream — the dream to actually have brilliant scientists working together to fight these disorders. We are very optimistic that they’ll be successful.”

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