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The gift that will help treat a terrifying disease

12 September 2017
Two Sydney alumni are determined to tackle the illness that robs patients of their personalities

Otto Appenzeller has gone from penniless migrant to respected neurologist. Now, he and his wife Judith are giving back, with a donation to support crucial research into Alzheimer's disease.

Otto and Judy Appenzeller

Otto Appenzeller spoke seven languages but not a word of English when he arrived to study medicine at the University of Sydney on a Commonwealth Scholarship.

It was 1950. He had fled his home in Romania for Australia in the wake of World War II. Crammed on a ship with two thousand other migrants, he slept on a hammock on a deck well below the water line.

He had studied medicine at Charles University in Prague, so was admitted into second year at Sydney Medical School. “I promptly failed,” he says. “I had to write essays, describing the course of the median nerve in the forearm and so on. I could say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and a few other words, but I could not write even a sentence.”

He left university to master the language before returning to medical school, where he met his wife, fellow Commonwealth scholar and Sydney girl, Judith. Otto went on to receive a travelling scholarship to London from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and a fellowship in Boston from the Post Graduate Medical Foundation. He eventually became a practising and researching neurologist, while Judith became a pathologist.

Sixty years after their graduation, the Appenzellers are donating $360,000 towards Alzheimer’s research at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre. The Appenzeller Neuroscience Fellowship will support a three-year position at the centre, for research into the causes, treatment and prevention of the disease.

As a neurologist, Otto has witnessed first-hand the damage the disease can wreak. "Alzheimer’s robs you of your personality ... you end up not recognising your relatives and your offspring," he says.

Alzheimer’s robs you of your personality...you end up not recognising your relatives and your offspring.
Otto Appenzeller

In Australia, there are more than 413,000 people living with dementia. Without a medical breakthrough, that number is expected to more than double by 2050. The Appenzellers’ gift will help support research crucial to changing that trajectory.

Professor Matthew Kiernan, Co-Director of the Brain and Mind Centre, says donations like the Appenzellers’ are vital. “These gifts allow us to continue our work but also to expand into areas of new focus, and attract the best talent to be able to do this,” he says.

For the couple, it is about giving back. “We are grateful for the opportunities that were given to us by receiving a wonderful education,” Otto says. “Without it, neither Judy nor I would have become what we did become.

“We wanted to return some of the favours that were done for us when we were young and penniless.”