Celebrating Baillieu Myer’s legacy of giving

The decades-spanning generosity of Sidney Baillieu Myer AC had an extraordinary impact on the University of Melbourne. ‘Bails’, as he was affectionately known to many, had a wide variety of philanthropic interests, supporting everything from diplomacy to dementia research.

Bails’ son Rupert Myer AO recalled an important influence behind his father’s broad spectrum of philanthropic pursuits over the years.

Baillieu Myer AC
Baillieu Myer AC.

“In reflecting on our father’s philanthropic legacy, [siblings] Sid, Samantha and I were always aware of his collaboration with our mother, Sarah, and her quiet and determined guiding hand,” shared Rupert.

“While it was clear from the breadth of his interests that, throughout his life, he maintained an almost childlike curiosity about everything around him as well as a prolific and undiminished imagination, he would so often be drawn to interests and passions that they shared.”

Bails passed away in 2022. But his transformational legacy continues, from the vital work of Asialink to the ongoing generosity of the Yulgilbar Foundation, The Myer Foundation – which he co-founded – and the Sidney Myer Fund, which he served as a trustee from 1958–2001.

With each endeavour, Rupert reflected on the countless personal relationships that his father garnered along the way.

"For him, the people that drove the projects and organisations were right at the heart of his engagement," said Rupert.

A unifying characteristic for everything that he did was his powerful optimism about the future and the ability that each generation has to make change for the better.Rupert Myer

A new approach to engaging with Asia

For over 30 years, Bails was a generous donor to Asialink, where he served as patron for two decades. He did not take a hands-off approach to the role. One of his major philanthropic initiatives was supporting the Asialink Conversations series at a time when many were complaining that Australia’s relations with the region were particularly strained.

Bails was an internationalist and he picked up views on his many travels through the Asian region. Former Asialink CEO Jenny McGregor AM recalls how in 2003, he sensed that Australia was being seen as having turned its back on Southeast Asia.

“ANU Dean, Professor Tony Milner, Asialink Chairman, Carrillo Gantner and I, worked with Bails on strategies to correct that perception,” explained Jenny.

“We saw the success of the Australia-US Dialogue but felt that a more challenging task was to build networks and dialogue in Asia, beginning with leaders from our immediate region. Then Prime Minister John Howard understood the need for this project, and it is exactly what Foreign Minister Penny Wong has been advocating recently.

“Bails was a strong advocate of the idea of building understanding of different perspectives at a deeper level – making us all better placed to manage strategic, geopolitical, environmental, cultural and economic challenges. His wartime experiences had heightened his awareness of the importance of peace.”

Bails was an ideal ambassador for Australia. The knowledge and networks created by the Asialink Conversations and the subsequent Asialink Commission Report on Australia Asia relations Our place in the Asian century continue to inform Asialink activities today.

“The unique thing about Bails was he was always there to listen – as well as to give wise counsel,” added Jenny. “He was present for all of Asialink’s major events, often with kind and generous acknowledgement of success. He supported risk taking and was constantly alert to opportunities to grow reach and impact. The perfect patron.”

Transforming dementia research

Through the Yulgilbar Foundation, Bails was also a generous supporter of the University’s research into dementia. In 2014, Bails and his wife Sarah publicly called for donations from other philanthropists to support Alzheimer’s research.

The couple announced they would match any donation offered, and also supported post-doctoral excellence awards to top up the salaries of young researchers.

More recently, the Foundation’s support for Alzheimer’s research has spanned several projects, including the Yulgilbar Alzheimer’s Research Program and the Alzheimer’s Research Clinicians’ Network.

Bails’ generosity also supported new breakthroughs in dementia research for Professor Colin Masters AO, Head of the Neuropathology and Neurodegeneration Laboratory at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.

My research team and I are thankful and grateful for Baillieu’s support for our research, as funding, along with novel ideas and dedication, are vital elements of medical research. Professor Colin Masters AO

“The generous and significant gifts we receive allow us to focus on research to understand, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease.

“Leveraging the resources at the University of Melbourne, and utilising their artificial intelligence/machine learning approaches, we will be able to identify and clarify the risk and protective factors for Alzheimer’s and other related brain disorders.”

Bails’ generosity has also driven the creation of the Australian Dementia Network, which has built a unique dementia community drawing on the expertise of researchers in 17 universities and research institutions, as well as people with lived experience of dementia.

The network is developing new technologies such as novel brain scans and blood tests to identify people suitable for early treatment trials, which are aimed at slowing disease and preventing dementia.

Making a difference in West Arnhem Land

Thanks to Bails’ generosity, the West Arnhem Dog Health Program (WALDHeP) has been making a difference to the communities of West Arnhem since 2004.

The program was established by Professor Liz Tudor AM in 2004 to provide essential veterinary services to the communities of West Arnhem, and is supported by the Yulgilbar Foundation.

Professor Tudor AM talking with Galiwin’ku children with WALDHeP. Professor Liz Tudor AM talking with Galiwin’ku children about their dog during a visit to West Arnhem with WALDHeP.

Each year, a group of Melbourne Veterinary School students, alumni and other veterinarians participate.

“Each day, we set up an outdoor clinic where surgery is conducted, and visit homes to offer parasite control medications, other treatments and surgical desexing to animals where their owners request this,” said Professor Tudor.

An extraordinary number of surgeries were conducted on the latest visit, and many owners were delighted and relieved to know that dog and cat numbers in their households could now be managed.  Professor Liz Tudor AM

The results speak for themselves: over the past decade, the average number of dogs per household in the town of Gunbalanya has fallen from 6.1 to 2.1, enabling families to have the number of pets they want.

A people-first approach to philanthropy

Uniting all of Bails’ philanthropic endeavours was a recognition of the power of enabling good people to do good work, Jenny said.

“Bails often backed people. His support wasn’t limited to funding, either. When I got the job to run Asialink, there was a mountain of stuff I didn’t know and people I hadn’t met. But Bails was always looking out for me, introducing me to people and inviting me to events.

“I felt that impostor syndrome, big time. But Bails put so much wind in my – and so many other people’s – sails.”