‘Philanthropy is the catalyst.’ Legacy of MUSC alumnus lives on through endowed chair holder who is changing what’s possible for women, families

Melissa Varner
May 12, 2022

A blood clot in her lung nearly killed Mary when she went into labor. Mary, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, spent days in the intensive care unit (ICU) before pulling through. After that, she and her partner were traumatized, terrified that Mary could die if she got pregnant again.

“Philanthropy is the catalyst that takes my years of training, experience and passion for this work and amplifies it, making it bigger and more impactful than it would be alone.”

“Every year when she comes in for her annual exam, she shows me a picture of her daughter,” said obstetrician-gynecologist Angela Dempsey, M.D., William M. Bristow Endowed Chair for Family Planning at MUSC Health. “Helping her avoid another life-threatening pregnancy so she can see her daughter grow up reminds me every year of the potential that contraception has to change lives.”

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers contraception one of the top 10 most important public health advancements of the last century.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, being able to delay or space pregnancies helps women achieve their education and career goals. It also has a positive impact on their income, family stability, mental health and happiness, and their children’s well-being.

But not all women have access to affordable and effective contraceptives. That comes at a huge cost in South Carolina, where the institute reports $84 million a year is spent caring for unintended pregnancies. Unintended means the pregnancy is either not wanted or not wanted yet.

The William M. Bristow Endowed Chair for Family Planning, held by Dempsey, was established to help address these inequities. An endowed chair is a faculty appointment that carries with it a dedicated source of funding to support the chair-holder’s work. These chairs, which are established with philanthropic gifts, help the university recruit and support the nation’s top faculty, clinicians and researchers.

“Philanthropy is the catalyst that takes my years of training, experience and passion for this work and amplifies it, making it bigger and more impactful than it would be alone,” Dempsey said.

“Sitting in an endowed chair enables me to dedicate time to my research, and to mentoring students and residents in their own research projects,” she continued. “It also allows me to collaborate with partners around the state. For example, I recently worked with the Choose Well initiative to train doctors and nurses at rural hospitals who were interested in providing immediate postpartum IUDs (intrauterine device) and implants for their patients.”

Portrait of William M. Bristow MD in military uniform
Dr. William M. Bristow

An endowed chair also creates an enduring legacy for its namesake. William M. Bristow, known as Melton to his friends in South Carolina, was a 1956 graduate of the MUSC College of Medicine. By the time he retired from the Navy in 1979, Bristow had visited more than 100 countries, patrolled with SEAL teams on secret missions, received a letter of commendation from the King of Morocco for helping contain a meningitis outbreak and discovered an ancient Phoenician shipwreck while searching for a downed aircraft off the coast of Malta.

Bristow poses in a helicopter during a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Bristow during a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Through his travels, Bristow came to feel strongly that contraception should be free, accessible and easy to use. To that end, he left a bequest to MUSC in his will, to establish the William M. Bristow Endowed Chair for Family Planning.

“Because of that gift, his legacy lives on,” said Dempsey, a 2002 alumna of the College of Medicine. “The impact of research findings and MUSC-educated trainees extends beyond South Carolina. It is a far-reaching gift that perpetuates the work that was important to Dr. Bristow during his lifetime.”