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Creating a center of MS expertise

With gift, University’s first lady leads drive for a premier multiple sclerosis program

By Nicole Endres

Susan Hagstrum, Ph.D., along with her husband, University President Robert Bruininks, Ph.D., pledged $100,000 to create a multiple sclerosis fellowship fund in her mother's honor. [Photo: Patrick O'Leary]

Shirley Hagstrum was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) when she was 40 years old. But she had symptoms of the disease, such as weakness and numbness in her legs, for many years before that, says her daughter Susan Hagstrum, Ph.D., who is married to University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks, Ph.D.

“Mom could never get up on skis,” Susan Hagstrum recalls of her family’s trips to the lake during her childhood. “Her knees were too weak.”

MS, an autoimmune disease, attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms can vary from person to person but can include fatigue, coordination difficulties, and vision loss. There is no known cure, although medication can help to slow its progression.

Although Shirley Hagstrum’s disease progressed relatively slowly, she was a quadriplegic and had severely diminished lung capacity for the last several years of her life. Still, until the day she died in 1999 at age 76, she always had a positive sense of herself.

“She bore her burden very valiantly,” Susan Hagstrum says.

Training tomorrow’s leaders

Hagstrum worries that there aren’t enough doctors to treat all of the people who are afflicted with MS today. About 400,000 people in the United States are living with MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Many Twin Cities-area MS specialists in particular are nearing retirement, she adds. “We need to train more clinicians.”

That’s why she and Bruininks in December established the Susan and Shirley Hagstrum Multiple Sclerosis Research Fellowship with a $100,000 gift commitment. The fellowship will help support future MS specialists as they take the next steps to expand knowledge about MS, improve treatments for it, and search for a cure.

“I’ve made a gift — the largest I’ve ever made — and it feels good to do that,” Hagstrum says.

Minnesota as a center of expertise

She dreams of the University becoming home to a comprehensive center that serves people with degenerative diseases.

And it makes sense: MS is much more common at northern latitudes, especially those above the 40°N parallel, according to the MS Society. Minneapolis is located at about 44°N.

The best way to make her dream come true, Hagstrum says, is to create an endowed chair to attract a superstar MS expert to the University who will train the next generation of care professionals. An endowed chair, the highest honor the University can bestow on a faculty member, gives its holder protected time to achieve his or her research goals. As chair-elect of the MS Society’s Minnesota chapter, Hagstrum hopes she can rally support for the effort.

“It’s easier for me to talk about it and advocate for it when I’ve already made that commitment,” she says.

Because this, Hagstrum says, is a priority that just can’t wait.

To support MS research and education, contact Tracy Ketchem at 612-625-1906 or, or visit To give directly to the Hagstrum fellowship fund, visit

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