The below is an excerpt from the book, A History of the Medical Foundation: 50 Years of Discovery, written by Dr Vanessa Witton.

A History of the Medical Foundation includes the evolution of the Foundation over the past 50 years, the contributions of major donors and the Women’s Committee, profiles of grant recipients and council members, and its relationship with the Coppleson Institute and the University of Sydney. A number of historical and contemporary photographs relating to the Foundation are included.

A History of the Medical Foundation: 50 Years of Discovery


Sir Victor Coppleson

In 2008 the Medical Foundation celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Its annual contribution to funding medical research and education had reached $4.5 million, and it had grown into one of the largest providers of private funds for medical research in Australia holding assets of over $59 million.

The story began far more modestly in 1957 when Dr (Sir) Victor Coppleson (pictured right) and (Sir) Robert Crichton-Brown approached Sir Frank Packer, Sir Vincent Fairfax (pictured below), and Mr Bill Farnsworth with a proposal to seek funding from the private sector for postgraduate medical teaching and research at the University of Sydney. The idea of sourcing funding from the private sector had circulated within the Faculty since the formation of the University’s Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine in 1936. According to Sir Robert Crichton-Brown, the impetus for Victor Coppleson’s initiative lay in his perception that the Faculty was “starving his committee of funds to carry out its task of postgraduate medical education.” This may well have been the case, for as Sir Robert pointed out, “There was very little money being spent in Australia on postgraduate medical education…particularly among general practitioners in country areas.” This situation was perhaps exacerbated by the dominance of the pharmaceutical industry as a funding source.

The following year, with the support of these captains of industry, Coppleson initiated negotiations with the University. After discussions, the Foundation’s constitution was drawn up, and on July 7, 1958, The Post-Graduate Medical Foundation of the University of Sydney was formed. Sir Frank Packer was elected interim President of the first Council of the Foundation, presiding over a body later described by Victor Coppleson as “comprised of men of great calibre.”

The Foundation’s ethos was radical for its day. It would raise funds from members of the private sector, who would manage the investment of the money. The University, in effect the Faculty, would then advise on the most appropriate people and projects to fund. The model, based on the principle of an enduring investment fund, represented something of a departure from the more common contemporary practice of individual donations for specific projects. From the outset the Foundation was organised and structured in such a way that major contributors were entitled to Council membership, whilst all donors were to be kept informed of Foundation activities. This transparency was to play a major part in its future success as a fundraising charity, for even at this early stage there was an acute awareness that people wanted to know where their money was going.


Sir Vincent Fairfax

Although the Council was largely comprised of private citizens or the representatives of corporate donors, it was not a stand alone body. From the outset there was a close relationship between the Foundation and the Faculty of Medicine. The University was of course to be the beneficiary of Foundation fundraising. Additionally however, it was to have a say in Council composition and funding choices. Accordingly, the Senate retained the right to approve members of Council before they took office. Importantly, the University was also to be represented on Council in an ex officio capacity. Although this participation was to be advisory, it commenced at the highest administrative and medical level, with the University represented by the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, the Dean of Medicine, and the Professor of Obstetrics. This inaugural Council was made up of eight Governors, twelve Members, and eighteen Associate Members. The structure of the Council ensured that the most was made of the commercial experience and insight of members from the corporate sector, and the medical expertise of the appointed representatives of the University. It was an effective model which maximised the talent of all concerned. The sourcing of donations and the control and investment of monies raised were largely controlled by the Foundation, whereas the University’s Post-Graduate Committee advised on the most appropriate funding targets.

Early Days

Sir Robert Crichton-Brown

The new Foundation got off to a flying start. By the end of December 1958, six months after its establishment, it had received a total of £71,955 in memberships and donations. This was an impressive sum in its historical context. Before the official opening by the Governor of New South Wales in March 1959, £17,000 had already been allocated to the Post-Graduate Committee for distribution. Although many people played a part in this stellar beginning, much of the success was predicated on the selfless contributions of the founding benefactors. It is a part of the history worth recording. In a recent interview, Sir Robert Crichton-Brown (pictured right) offered an illuminating insight into this early state of affairs. He recalled that administrative costs were borne by Council principals. To this end he noted “We bore the costs, absorbing them into our own structures.” This financial help ranged from running expenses, to office space. Indeed even as late as 1969, the Foundation enjoyed rent-free accommodation in Mr Mostyn’s building in North York Street, Sydney, saving $3,300 annually, and during Sir Robert’s own presidency the Foundation was run from his own work premises. This personal generosity allowed the Foundation to run a very lean crew and a tight ship in the early and middle years. At the Foundation’s Second Annual General Meeting held in June 1960, it was noted that the total costs for salaries, rent, promotions and such things as mailing was only $14,000, or about 11.8 per cent. This was largely due to “the amount of voluntary work” that went into running the Foundation. The President Frank Packer summed it up dryly, noting “It was not a bad expense ratio in any business.”

The other unsung contribution of the founding members in the early cash-strapped days was to act as guarantor for donor pledges. Sir Robert Crichton-Brown described how the promise of donations was projected into an income budget, which the Members then had to guarantee until such time as the money materialised. Sir Robert recalled the early fiscal situation succinctly. “We operated on a procedure of projected finance. In other words we had promises. Our budgeting (was) over a period of three to five years, which of course was not very popular with the Senate at the University, or particularly the Vice- Chancellor and the Chancellor, who very prudently considered that they wanted to see the money in the bank before we spent it.”

In spite of these obstacles, the Foundation flourished. By the end of 1959, the total amount raised had reached £75,852. This included an early donation of £2,000 from Mr Wagner. Other sizeable early contributors included the Joint Coal Board which funded a fellowship, and Roche Products which supported a three year fellowship in Psychiatry. At year’s end, £47,612 had been distributed by the Post-Graduate Committee.

Even at this early stage the Foundation supported a wide range of projects. These included funding for equipment, training, and travel expenses. In the first two years, funds were provided to enable nine Australian doctors to undertake research overseas. Other major projects included £8,144 for the Cancer Detection Fund, Professor Bruce Mayes’ scheme for training and putting into operation a scanner in six Sydney teaching hospitals. There were also individual projects, such as £3,500 for Dr Bryan Williams’ Radiological Research at Sydney Hospital, and in the same field the Foundation allocated a substantial sum for the Third Australasian Conference on Radiobiology.

...continued in A History of the Medical Foundation: 50 Years of Discovery. Contact us for details.