Wartime tragedy brings $4m windfall
2 May 2008
In 1940, life was good for Dr Albert McKern. He had a successful career, was financially comfortable, and was revered by the people of Penang where he lived and worked. "I've been to Penang many times," says his grandson Bill McKern, "and people still talk of him with great affection."
Born in Sydney in 1885, Albert had studied hard to find the perfect career. Theology at the University of Sydney didn't suit - he was no public speaker. So with his wife and two young sons, he set sail in 1911 for Connecticut, where he studied engineering at Yale.
Switching continents again, he found his true vocation at Edinburgh University where he graduated in medicine in 1917 - but then came another change of course, as the family headed east to Malaya.
"After graduating he went straight to Penang, I don't know why," says Bill. "But he was very happy. He built up both a successful medical practice and real estate holdings, mainly vacant beachfront lots of about three to five acres each. One was developed into his own house. He also bought a portfolio in the middle of Georgetown, the capital, where the big shopping centre is.
"He was a wonderful fellow. It's one of the saddest stories I know, how it all came to an end for my grandfather," says Bill.
And indeed, tragedy did strike. The Japanese invaded Malaya. Penang was bombed. Expatriates fled to Singapore. In 1942, Dr McKern boarded the P&O shipSS Mata Hari, but the ship was captured in Indonesia and he became a prisoner of war.
Three years later, just two months before the end of the war, Dr McKern died of amoebic dysentery in the Belalau internment camp in Sumatra. He was 60.
An expatriate planter, M.J.V. Miller, recorded in his diary: "Dr McKern lost his suitcase in which he had all his clothes and a bottle of emetine [a drug used for amoebic dysentery from which he had occasional attacks].
"We had not been in Belalau long before he had another relapse, there was no drug to combat it…I was the second to last person totalk to him, and later helped to put him in his coffin which was just a rough box made of rough, unplaned planks. We buried him among the rubber trees."
Not long before his death, Dr McKern composed a new will, writing: "I hereby direct that none of my land or house property be sold until the time specified hereunder in this will."
He stipulated that his doctor's partnership be sold to reduce his overdraft. He instructed that bungalows and flats be built on his vacant land and that other properties in Penang be renovated and let out. His shares were not to be sold until they reached a certain price.
The income from these investments was to go mainly to his wife and three sons.
Upon the death of the last survivor, ten years were to elapse before the entire holdings were to be sold. Then the money was to be divided three ways between his alma maters: Sydney, Yale and Edinburgh universities.
Dr Fiona Burns from Sydney's Law faculty, an expert on inheritance law and succession, says it was a most unusual testament. "It appears that he was determined to provide his wife, children and family with income during their lifetime, but also ensure that the universities ultimately benefited from his asset holdings," she says.
"In the light of what must have been terrible living conditions and ill-health, he demonstrated a remarkable clarity of thought and foresight."
In total, US$11 million is to be spent exactly how Dr McKern wished, "for the sole and special purpose of establishing medical research scholarships for investigation into the causes, prevention and treatment of mental and physical pain and distress during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium".
"I guess he attended many births and was saddened by how women suffered and died, especially from puerpural fever," says Bill McKern.
"He was a very generous person," says another grandson, Bill's brother Alan. "While I appreciate that we were able to enjoy the benefits of his will for so long, it was a very well-written document and he made it clear what he wanted. And I'm very happy with that. He would be amazed to learn how his assets have grown in value."
Two instalments of $2.5 million and $1.7 million were paid to Sydney University in March.
"It's an extraordinary story," says Professor Bruce Robinson, Dean of Medicine.
"Who could have expected that more than 60 years after Dr McKern's death in a prisoner of war camp, his legacy would be used to improve the health of women during childbirth."
Professor Robinson said no decisions have yet been made on programs to be funded by the bequest.
"But we are aiming to work collaboratively with Yale and Edinburgh, including supporting the exchange of researchers between institutions. All three universities are internationally recognised for their expertise in reproductive medicine, and this bequest gives us an unexpected opportunity to strengthen the links."
Contact: Kath Kenny
Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100