The gift of good health

By Margaret Rice

Peter Davidson’s childhood illness and life experiences make his gifts to the University as poignant as they are generous.
Image of Peter Davidson

Credit: Ted Sealey

There is something poignant when Peter Davidson explains that occasionally he is overwhelmed to the point of tears, a side effect of childhood polio. Whether his tears are a consequence of polio or not, as we sit in his home above a plateau on Sydney’s northern beaches, with breathtaking views of the Narrabeen Lakes below, it’s unfair to attribute all the tears to polio. His life stories as an adult are equally moving.

Peter is 82 and was originally to support the University of Sydney, his alma mater, through a bequest. But he recently decided instead to give the majority of his gift, which will amount to about $5 million, to the University during his lifetime. However, the objects of his philanthropic gift will remain the same: supporting a postgraduate scholarship at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (to be called the Peter Davidson Scholarship); children’s health programs of the Sydney Medical School, including ChIPS (Chronic Illness Peer Support), and the Sydney Medical School with another scholarship to be called the Peter and Suzanne Davidson Scholarship/Research Program. Peter is also bequeathing a painting by the noted Australian artist Sir William Dobell to the University.

Peter’s link with the Children’s Hospital in Camperdown dates back to his early childhood. Born with deformed feet, as a young boy he also suffered from polio. “I had a consultation with a doctor in about 1940, when the war was on, regarding my feet. He made it very clear that I was going to have a hard time and would not be accepted into the army, for instance. The message was received loud and clear by my mother and me.”

Peter went to Albury Grammar School when he was 12 and even though boarding school is traditionally the place young boys go to be pushed, because of his disabilities this didn’t happen. “I was the one kid they didn’t push. “It was a major mistake. I was the kid who didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to play sports, for instance, and I was just the kid to take advantage of that and I was allowed to opt out of anything. I gave up violin lessons. Had I been at home I think my mother would have put her foot down on that one. I needed a lot more pushing than I got away from home.”

"I didn’t marry until I was 52 because I decided at 18 I had had a pretty rough childhood and I wouldn’t have children, since that wouldn’t be fair."

Peter went to the University of Sydney, studying economics, and then went on to work for the Overseas Telecommunications Commission, later part of Telstra. He consciously chose to avoid marriage, deciding not to have children so there was no risk his foot deformity could be passed on, although age is a marvellous leveller. At 82, he is more nimble and light footed than many of his mates, whose incapacities from later in life now overshadow his. “I didn’t have a girlfriend when I was young, I didn’t marry until I was 52 because I decided at 18 I had had a pretty rough childhood and I wouldn’t have children, since that wouldn’t be fair,” he says.

Polio continues to have an impact throughout life, sometimes with late effects. As a result, Peter has continued his consultations with Sydney University medical experts. “My medical bequests are to do with all these things. I mean I’m here today because of very, very good medical support.”

Despite having no children Peter is very conscious of what it costs to raise a child. So he contributes financially and involves himself in the lives of a local family. “They don’t have either of their grandfathers, so I’m their adopted grandfather.”

Peter met his wife Suzanne, 15 years younger than him, on the Manly ferry and they conducted their courtship on Sydney Harbour as they were ferried home from work each day over the following year. But the love of his life was snatched away from him by ovarian cancer, in 2008. “When Sue was alive, I expected her to survive me. But when she died that need disappeared. That was five years ago. Then I began looking in detail at what would be done in my estate. I was convinced that there would be more in the bottom line for the University if I did it now. I was conscious of the rearing of children who have disabilities and the need for support which was not available in my day so that attracted me to the ChIPS program. I started contributing to that program in about 2009 and I have ever since.”

Many of the young participants write to him to let him know how they are going and he gives out a ChIPs related award each year. “I didn’t expect any feedback but I have had surprising feedback from some of the children. Well, they’re adolescents.”

Associate Professor Sue Towns, head of ChIPs explains why Peter is so much loved by the participants. “Due to his experience with chronic disease in his own childhood, Peter has really struck a chord with the young people he so keenly supports. We couldn’t have achieved what we have without his generosity and support.”

Peter’s decision to give to the Conservatorium is similarly motivated. “I was one of the musical kids at school and I was a violinist then. Music was what I really enjoyed. I didn’t pursue the violin but that explains my interest in music. I not only enjoy music, but I enjoy the making of music."

Professor Karl Kramer, Dean of the Conservatorium, says: “we were honoured and humbled by Peter’s recent decision to endow a postgraduate scholarship. His gift demonstrates a belief in the Con whose vision and purpose is to help aspiring musicians develop their craft and share their passion for music with the community.”

Peter is thrilled to be alive to see his gifts unfold. “To see it happen is wonderful and I’m swamped with invitations. There is a dinner this month hosted by the dean of the Medicine faculty and yesterday’s mail brought me this invitation to a beautiful lunch in the Great Hall. I mean – well, what could be better?"