Kenneth Baillieu Myer 1921-1992

Written by Derek Denton.


Kenneth Baillieu Myer was elected to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy in April 1992, under the provision for special election of people who are not scientists but have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science. Myer was a significant figure in Australian history by virtue of his contribution to the origins or early development of major national institutions, most notably the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, the School of Oriental Studies at the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Arts Centre and the National Library of Australia. He successfully fostered new research in organizations such as the Division of Plant Industry of the CSIRO and helped build the Oriental Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

A philanthropic life

One of Australia's great citizens, Kenneth Baillieu Myer, and his wife Yasuko died in a light plane crash in Alaska on 30 July 1992. Ken had been elected to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in April 1992 under the provision for 'special election' of people who are not scientists but who are judged to have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science.

Kenneth Myer was an exceptional man who had a discernable impact on the arts, science and learning in Australia. This reflected his imagination and powerful impetus to create, which stemmed from a real curiosity. This generated his enthusiasm for science and an appetite to associate with and participate in the process of scientific discovery. He sought to understand the context – biological, medical or physical – of the investigations with which he identified. Although he was not formally trained in technology or biomedical science, this was no impediment to his wish to grasp the essence of a research investigation, and how it might alter basic knowledge and also have practical implications.

Kenneth Myer was rich and generous. His attitudes and philosophical outlook were not those of many, given his background and education. These circumstances were 'Establishment', with the connotation of wealth and power and the embrace of social structures that add up to a settled state of affairs. Notwithstanding this, elements of his outlook on life and society were non-conformist and, to a degree, socialist.

The customary pattern of biography in this journal centres on contributions to knowledge and the influence of discoveries. This includes the impact of the scientist in question on the academic world and community, illustrated by a comprehensive bibliography of publications. Kenneth Myer's impact was different. There are many people in Australia who have made large fortunes or built upon an inheritance, and who have departed the scene and left little behind in a public sense. Their presence and passing were unremarkable. By contrast, an account of Kenneth Myer's life illuminates how a lay person can participate in the progressive unravelling of a scientific problem, spurred on by an impatience to surmount obstacles – intellectual, organizational and financial.

This happened in several instances with Kenneth Myer and resulted in his taking the initiative. Thus in his major act of philanthropy, the creation of the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, he conceived a plan that involved both his brother, Baillieu Myer, and another highly influential figure in Australia, Sir Ian Potter. The creation of the Howard Florey Laboratories was the first major philanthropic exercise for all three, and perhaps its success set a pattern for what might benefit Australian science in the future. Recounting aspects of how they became involved may act as a paradigm in relation to future instances whereby imaginative citizens become philanthropists of science. The key element was the emergence of a sense of identification with the process of scientific discovery – the sense of being a participant in events. For Kenneth Myer, this sense of deep involvement coupled with his personal philanthropy was also operative in the case of the National Gallery and Arts Centre in Victoria, the National Library of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Division of Plant Industry of CSIRO, and the University of Melbourne.

Kenneth Baillieu Myer was born on 1 March 1921, the eldest son of a Jewish-Russian immigrant to Australia, Simcha Baevski. Simcha changed his name to Sidney Myer shortly after founding the family business. He married Marjory Merlyn Baillieu and they had four children – Kenneth, Neilma, Baillieu, and Marigold. All four children were born in the USA, where Sidney Myer had substantial business interests. In an interview with John Edwards, published in the Financial Review – one of the rare interviews Kenneth Myer gave, which provided key source material for this biography – Ken states that from 1920 until 1928, it was a toss-up whether his father would make his major interest in California or in Australia. In 1929, he decided to come back to Australia.

While in California, Kenneth Myer attended the local primary school in San Mateo, about twenty miles south of San Francisco. He did not see a great deal of his father because of the latter's preoccupation with his business, sport and travel. He had strong memories, however, of his father as a very warm and tremendously energetic man. Sidney was always doing something.

Sidney Myer started in business with a small clothing shop in Bendigo, Victoria, and progressed to Melbourne's Bourke Street in 1911, where he took competitors by storm with his unconventional marketing methods. Despite the fact that at times the enterprise was at risk, within a short time he demolished the Bourke Street site of Wright and Neil and built the Myer Emporium, which became one of Australia's largest stores. This retail empire was the foundation of the family fortune, and Sidney Myer was most generous to the community. His benefactions to music were the foundation of what is a rich musical heritage today. He was most helpful to the poor during the Depression of the 1930s. His great Christmas Dinner in 1933 for ten thousand pensioners and unemployed brought him much fame. The Premier of Victoria, Sir Stanley Argyle, was moved to comment at the time of Sidney Myer's death in 1934 that 'a transcending trait in his character was his deep humanitarianism'. Sidney Myer's philanthropy did not stop with his death, for in his will he left ten per cent of his estate of one million pounds to a trust for charitable philanthropic and educational needs in the community 'in which I made my fortune'.

Kenneth Myer was thirteen when his father died. He later stated that 'If you are the eldest male in the family at age thirteen you have a much stronger feeling of responsibility at an earlier age than is normal'. He stressed that his mother had a great influence on him in amplifying the memory and legend of his father. She had very strong principles and inculcated an attitude of community duty.

Ken had been sent to be a boarder at Geelong Grammar School, an experience that he did not enjoy. He found it an artificial society, somewhat difficult for a sensitive boy. He was shy and felt himself to be a loner. Though he worked hard, he was not a great achiever. An important influence on him at the school was William McKay, the music master, who was later to become Sir William McKay, responsible for the Queen's music at Westminster Abbey. This association generated a deep interest in music. There was also an art master who gave him a good insight into painting, and he studied the classics, Ancient Greek and Latin.

In 1939, Ken succeeded in passing the entrance examination for Modern Greats at Oxford, but when he was in New York on his way there, the Second World War broke out and the Warden of New College advised him not to proceed to Oxford. He went instead to Princeton University and had interesting experiences there. In these early days of the war, Ken encountered a somewhat hostile atmosphere in the university. Many of his fellow students regarded the war as imperialist, and Ken came under attack for trying to defend the stand that Australia and Great Britain were taking. He felt unable to deal with the isolationist outlook of the more sophisticated East Coast students, particularly the girls. One exception was a Belgian, daughter of a professor. But there were compensations. He travelled often to New York, a journey of forty-five minutes by train.

After a year at Princeton, Ken returned to Australia and joined the Royal Australian Navy, the RAN, in the anti-submarine service. He spent six years in the navy, much of the time on destroyers. He became good friends with several of his colleagues and felt that life on destroyers was very close to nature and the sea. He became a navigator, which involved long hours contemplating the cosmos, and this had some bearing on his life-long fascination with the natural world and his philosophical cast of mind. His attachment to the earth and to trees and flowers had started in his parents' garden at Cranlana, followed by frequent trips to visit his maternal grandmother in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne. Some of his tours of duty as an anti-submarine officer were in Papua New Guinea, and he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his role in an attack by HMAS Arunta on a Japanese submarine that had torpedoed a merchant ship, Malaita, outside Port Moresby. While in the navy he worked in the North Atlantic, in Greece, and in Yugoslavia supplying Marshal Tito's forces. He also received a Distinguished Service Medal for torpedoing a German submarine in the Adriatic Sea while serving as a Lieutenant in the British navy, having temporarily transferred from the RAN to the Royal Navy in mid-1943. Later he served in the occupation forces in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. This was his first exposure to Asia.

In 1947 Ken married Prudence Boyd and they subsequently had one daughter and four sons – Joanna, Michael, Philip, Martyn and Andrew. All have shared some of Kenneth Myer's interest in philanthropy, particularly in the arts and sciences, and in giving help to the disadvantaged. Prudence Boyd was a law student at the University of Melbourne when they met, and they married fifteen months later, after her graduation. John Edwards asked Ken about Prudence. He said 'she was definitely of an academic bent, and set very high standards. She was very interested in things of the mind. Not gregarious and not interested in sport. She had been a great help to him.' Prudence set very high standards for the children, and generated an intellectual attitude in the family. In 1976 Ken and Prudence were divorced, and he married Yasuko Hiraoka in 1979.

Following the war, after contemplating a life on the land, Ken entered the Myer Emporium, and was a Director from 1948 to 1985. He was Deputy Chairman and Managing Director, 1960-1966; then Chairman, 1966-1976, and a non-executive Director, 1976-1985. He was a Director of Coles-Myer, the retail-store conglomerate formed by the amalgamation of the Myer Emporium with the Coles group of companies, 1985-1989.

Kenneth Myer was a great innovator in the retail industry and won the International Retailers Award in 1970. He was a director of the National Retail Merchants Association of the USA from 1969 to 1979. During his period of leading the Myer Emporium, there was major expansion into Melbourne's big suburban shopping centres such as Chadstone and Eastland, and also the Target discount stores were set up.

In whatever capacity he was involved, whether in business or in his wide-ranging public life, Ken established warm and enduring friendships with the people with whom he came into contact, in libraries, museums and art galleries, in broadcasting, in medical and scientific research, and in many other spheres. Those friendships were built on a respect for particular skills and expertise and a recognition that people mattered.

Kenneth Myer's first community involvement when he returned from the war was as Honorary Secretary of the National Gallery Society of Victoria from 1948 to 1953. From 1958 to 1980 he was a member of the Victorian Arts Centre Building Committee, and Chairman from 1965 to 1980. When the building of the Arts Centre was complete, he became Chairman of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust from 1980 to 1989. These formal roles ratify his influence in benefiting Melbourne and the nation in the construction of the Arts Centre on the old Wirth's Circus site in St Kilda Road. The magnificent complex of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Concert Hall, and the State Theatre and Drama Theatres have altered the texture of life in Melbourne. Close by, the Australian Ballet Centre has been built, incorporating the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School. Also nearby is the Victorian headquarters of the Australian Opera. Ken's enthusiasm and role in negotiating funding from the State Government was pivotal. As a private benefactor, his influence on the architecture and internal organization was evident. He gave unstinting support to the project's architect, Roy Grounds, who was charged, after a competition, with the responsibility of building the Centre. This close working relation is perhaps epitomized by an anecdote.

One Sunday morning after Ken and I had been playing tennis, we were having a drink at his house in Albany Road, Toorak, when Roy Grounds came in. I do not remember the exact date, but it was very early in the building process. With Roy was a domestic wicker clothes basket, and over this a towel. When unveiled on the lounge-room floor, the basket proved to be full of strangely shaped polystyrene blocks which Roy, on his knees, set out on the floor. Then with great enthusiasm, he stood up and said: 'this is the Victorian Arts Centre'. Ken was delighted and they began a discussion in which Grounds described how the theatres would be buried, since there were foundation problems arising from the state of the soil adjacent to the Yarra River.

An early decision that reflected Ken's and Ian Potter's commercial judgement was the decision to place a large car park under the National Gallery, in the hope that it would contribute to the finances of the Centre and also provide easy access in and out of the entire complex. That this was a fantastic advantage is evident to those who have struggled overseas in attending Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, or the Bolshoi Theatre. The only major disappointment for Ken and Roy Grounds in the execution of the complex was the inability to complete, as conceived, the major spire that was planned for the open space on top of the State Theatre complex. This was to incorporate the headquarters of the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School, but Government funds, though generous, were not adequate to allow this to be built. A fine portrait of Kenneth Myer by Wes Walters is in the foyer of the State Theatre.

National Library of Australia

Having been a member of the Interim Council of the National Library of Australia in 1960 and a founding member of the statutory Council established in 1961, Myer served as Chairman of the Council from 1974 to 1982.

Myer's role in the National Library has been described warmly by John Thompson, one-time director of the Library's Australian Collection and Services. 1 The reflections within that essay, including quotations from the first Kenneth Myer Lecture, given by E. G. Whitlam, are a most valuable record of Ken's impact on that fine institution.

Thompson records that Arthur Ellis, subsequently Librarian of the University of Western Australia, remembered Ken 'chiefly because of his enthusiasm for most things and especially for those that were new and which caught his imagination', while Harrison Bryan, the Library's former Director-General, observed that as Chairman of the Council,

Myer was meticulous, hardworking and utterly exhausting. He would arrive at meetings primed by hours of discussion beforehand, with his papers scored and rescored with the coloured felt pens he used. He was completely in control at Council meetings and remorseless in eliciting all the facts of our operations. I found him an excellent chairman to work with, in that, despite his restless energy and his wholehearted commitment to the Library, he never sought to interfere in its day to day workings or to pre-empt in any other way the proper role of the Director-General.

Thompson also records that

In his role as Chairman of the National Library of Australia Council, Ken Myer worked hard to bring the institution into the computer age. While he always honoured and respected the great collecting tradition of the Library – indeed, he stated that the collections represented the heart of the institution – he had been shocked in 1968, at the time of the opening of the new building, to hear the perception of a distinguished American visitor that the National Library, though admirable in many ways, was stranded in the eighteenth century. He referred to the management of its procedures, the handling of information and the provision of services to the nation.

This view jolted Myer into the realization that the Library should embrace the new technology and the opportunities that computers offered to streamline procedures and to deliver more efficient and effective service. The interest that he took in this became the hallmark of his term as Chairman. That same interest continued in the Library long after Ken's formal association with the institution had come to an end.

Myer's other great contribution to the National Library of Australia – and to the many other institutions and causes with which he was associated – was his personal and unstinting generosity. Harrison Bryan noted that Ken Myer was the most generous of men – generous with his money, generous with his time and generous with his friendships. At the National Library, he made major donations to a General Trust Fund that was established on his initiative to give the institution and its Director-General some financial flexibility not always possible under traditional public service arrangements. In fact, two separate capital donations were provided to fund the Australian Libraries Summit in 1988 and the conference 'Towards Federation 2001: Linking Australians and their Heritage', organized by the National Library in March 1992.

An earlier instance of Ken Myer's generosity that fuelled what became a major initiative for Australian librarianship was described by Arthur Ellis, who remembered that in 1970, after he presented a paper to Council on how the Library might proceed with plans for an on-line national bibliographical system, Ken Myer provided the funds that enabled two senior members of the Library's staff to travel to the state of Washington in the USA to inspect the Washington Library Network (WLN) and to appraise its possible application to the Australian situation.

At that time, overseas travel was not always easy for personnel of institutions such as the National Library. It was characteristic of Myer that, having discerned the possible advantages for Australia of the WLN system, he should seek to save time and to cut through red tape by providing the means by which this important reconnaissance could be undertaken. The WLN system was eventually purchased by the National Library and provided the necessary software infrastructure to enable the Library to create its successful Australian Bibliographic Network. That network should be acknowledged as one of Ken Myer's many memorials.

In several reminiscences of Ken Myer that have been given in the years since his death, a common theme has been his friendliness, his qualities of personal warmth and his appreciation of people. At the National Library, the establishment of a scheme of long-service awards for staff was based on a suggestion by Ken, who was familiar with a similar scheme in the Myer group of companies. That scheme now operates in the National Library with the full support of the Council and it provides another tangible expression of the contribution Myer made to the Library's development as a major national institution.

During his early years on the National Library's Council, Ken had a close relationship with the then Chairman, Sir Peter Crisp, Chief Justice of Tasmania. After each Council meeting, they would spend the weekend trout fishing at Lake Eucumbene with friends. An early element in Ken's promoting of the transition of the Library from a traditional repository of documents to an electronic-age information centre was his association with Dr Martin Cummings of the International Office of the US National Institutes of Health in Washington. Cummings had been involved in the grant from the National Institutes of Health to me at the time the idea of building the Howard Florey Laboratories was conceived. He became Director of America's National Medical Library and was instrumental in the development of Medlars as an international data-retrieval system. Australia followed Sweden in a reciprocal arrangement with the USA that allowed full access to the database of the National Medical Library in Washington. Other elaborations of this system came later, but the development was consistent with Ken's desire that the Australian facilities should be first class. With his interest in architecture, Ken also exerted a powerful influence in the planning of the National Library's building, possibly the most elegant structure on the shores of Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin.

On Australia Day 1976, Ken Myer was in the second batch of Companions of the Order of Australia to be appointed, his service to the National Library being specifically cited. In 1989, the Australian Libraries and Information Association gave him its Redmond Barry Award, which goes to a person not employed in a library who has rendered outstanding services to the promotion of a library and to the practice of librarianship.

There is a story worth telling apropos the National Library that illustrates how Ken's enthusiasm could sometimes lead to a minor disaster. It involved a major loss of opportunity for the support of medical research. It was at the time following Australia's 1972 general election when Gough Whitlam with one other member of his party assumed government of the country for a short period before the remainder of the new Cabinet was formally installed. Earlier, Ken, Ian Potter, Colin Syme and Andrew Grimwade had presented to the then Prime Minister, William McMahon, a brief prepared by Sir Gustav Nossal and myself outlining the parlous state of support for medical research in Australia compared with not only the United States but also Canada, the Scandinavian countries, the UK, France and Germany. The brief showed that, considered as a percentage of gross domestic product, Australian research funding ranked very low. McMahon had said that he would consider doing something about it but did nothing, and his disappointment with this caused Ken to sign a public letter suggesting it was time for a change of government – a letter that caused a temporary rift in his family. Whitlam was now Prime Minister and Dr H. C. ('Nugget') Coombs was Pro-Chancellor of the Australian National University and resident in the Chancellor's apartment at University House. He invited Whitlam to dinner, together with Ken and me. The intention was unambiguous: to ask the new Prime Minister for a dramatic increase in the national funding of medical research. The circumstances, with Coombs as Whitlam's principal economic adviser and Whitlam's political indebtedness to Ken, could not have been better.

However, Ken had that day met up with a major figure in the Swedish National Library, and they had enthusiastically discussed the electronic linking of libraries all over Europe for exchange of information. They both arrived for dinner with a projector and slide show. Given that the Prime Minister had probably been up since 5 am, responsible for running the country almost single-handedly, it was not difficult to see that he was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open, notwithstanding the avalanche of enthusiasm. Ken was wonderfully unstoppable, and 'Nugget' and I looked at one another with some measure of despair. Despite the purpose of the dinner, medical research never came up and the chance of altering the national situation passed. As years went by, real improvement has occurred on a piecemeal basis, but the opportunity of persuading Gough Whitlam to make the quantum jump in relation to medical research becoming a national priority passed.

Community and urban interests

Ken Myer also took active interest in urban planning, architecture and the ambience in which a community conducts its daily affairs. He was President of the Town and Country Planning Association of Victoria, 1953-1958, a member of the founding Council of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies in 1967, and also, in 1971, a member of the Australian National Capital Planning Committee. He cared greatly for the welfare and aesthetics of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne and it was his habit to walk or picnic there whenever possible. He had a wide knowledge of botany and took delight in educating his friends about trees and flowers.

Ken's other public services include serving on the Committee of Economic Enquiry (the Vernon Committee) set up by Prime Minster Menzies in 1962, which reported to the Government in 1965. Ken described it as a deeply interesting experience. It was hard work, equivalent to a postgraduate course in Economics. He was much depressed by the failure of the Government to use the Report.

He also served on the Universities Commission (Chair, Sir Leslie Martin) from July 1962 for three years, and was very enthusiastic about its function.

There is no doubt that he got great pleasure from music. Sidney Myer, who was instrumental in founding the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, had delighted in organizing open-air concerts in the Botanical Gardens that were free to everyone. After his death, Ken, with his brother Bails, his mother, his cousin Norman and his sister Neilma brought about the construction of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the Kings Domain. Concerts and, later, theatrical performances of ballet and opera took place there, and still do. The opening night in 1959 was a great occasion. The Bowl was given by Ken to the people of Victoria and Australia, with the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, accepting and the people of Melbourne attending en masse. The next night, Ken with wife and friends had a picnic dinner on the grass and listened to Mozart under the stars, together with thousands of other Melbournians. He was delighted – it worked.

The Myer Foundation

The Sidney Myer Fund reflected Sidney Myer's desire that a significant portion of his fortune should continue to bestow benefit on the community and provide a generous distribution from the Myer family. In addition, in 1958, Ken and his brother Baillieu Myer founded the Myer Foundation, of which Ken was President until his death. This formalized and augmented substantially the policy of personal donation that they had both followed. It was set up on the same institutional basis as the Rockefeller Foundation in the USA, with the object of 'the benefit of mankind'. The first two major benefactions made by the Myer Foundation were support for the building of the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, as will be described in detail below, and the establishment of a Chair and Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Melbourne. This latter far-sighted gesture reflected Ken's rapidly growing interest in Asia. His collecting proclivities in the arts from an early stage were largely centred on oriental art, no doubt influenced by the great family collection of Chinese ceramics. In 1958 he and Prudence made a visit to China, which at that time was an unusual thing to do. He was exceedingly curious to see what was happening, as the information available was limited. This was the forerunner of many subsequent visits and resulted in him being one of the most informed members of the Australian public in this area.

The Myer Foundation, together with the Sidney Myer Fund, is now a major force in the support of the arts and community projects in Australia. The existence of the Sidney Myer Fund and the settlement on the Myer Foundation with his brother, did not inhibit Ken from continuing his own personal donations to causes that attracted him. This was exemplified by donations of money and objects for the Japanese Gallery of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Director, Edmund Capon, has described this as the finest collection of Japanese art in Australia.

The Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine

His support for the building of the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine was arguably the most significant philanthropic decision Ken made, particularly as he was a prime mover for it.

Ken's first involvement with science was his enthusiasm for the work of the Ionic Research Unit in the Department of Physiology at the University of Melbourne. This began informally when Ken and I met in 1954 on the tennis court at the home of Sir Norman Myer, then Chairman of the Myer Emporium. A close friendship developed with both him and his brother Baillieu ('Bails') Myer, and over the succeeding years we all spent considerable time together. Over three years, we discussed the way a surgical preparation in sheep had successfully reproduced the distortions of body fluid chemistry and evoked regulatory mechanisms that I had seen in a patient in the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The unique results there had been reported in Nature in 1948. 2 Our sheep parotid fistula preparation (an innovation in ruminants that derived from Pavlov's preparation in dogs) had opened up new avenues of medical enquiry into the control of body fluid composition and the organization of instinctive systems of ingestive behaviour in the brain. A major aspect of the work became the control of aldosterone secretion – the salt-retaining hormone. Ken fully understood this to be of great medical importance since disorders of salt balance were implicated in high blood pressure and dropsy of heart, liver and kidney disease.

Parenthetically, another issue needs mention. Ken and his wife Prudence both had an interest in the land (Prue's father had been Chairman of the Australian Wool Board) and both were intrigued by our hypothesis. This was that the change of sodium-to-potassium ratio of the sheep saliva with increasing body sodium deficit was a mechanism that emerged during evolution, and permitted ruminant types of animals (pastoral and wild game) to adapt to the extensive sodium-deficient regions of the planet. In effect, the animal as it became depleted of salt was using potassium, the cation abundant in grass and herbage, to replace sodium in order to operate its digestive system with the copious volumes of saliva that were required.

A crucial step in unravelling the control of aldosterone was the development of the idea of having a transplanted adrenal gland in the neck of sheep. By circulating the blood of a salt-deficient animal to this transplant, it was shown that there was an unidentified hormone in the blood that controlled aldosterone secretion. This evoked international media interest that had an impact in Australia and generated an editorial in the British Medical Journal3.

Ken Myer was enthused by these developments since he had a clear conceptual grasp of the biology and medicine involved. Apart from visits to the laboratories, he often called in at my house to hear the latest results. Several things now happened in quick succession. John Coghlan, who had joined the Unit, had found in the international literature an abstract describing a new radioisotope method for estimating adrenal steroids in adrenal-vein blood. This was of vital importance to us. Ken, when told that it involved buying a Packard liquid scintillation spectrometer costing £10,000, immediately provided the funds and supported Dr Coghlan's going to the USA to learn the methodology.

By this time Ken, his brother Bails and Sir Ian Potter, the distinguished stock broker and financier, had all visited the Department of Physiology laboratories more than once to see the sheep on which the experiment was being carried out and to discuss the growing implications of the data for medical science. Following one such visit, a dinner party was held in 1958 that was attended by Ken and Bails Myer, Sir Ian Potter, Colin Syme, who was Chairman of BHP and President of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Professor R. D. ('Pansy') Wright, Head of the Department of Physiology, Dr H. C. Coombs of the Reserve Bank, who by this stage had first-hand knowledge of the experiments, and myself. The discussion covered the paucity of provision for medical research in Australia at governmental level. During the course of the evening, Coombs remarked that the experimental work in the Department of Physiology, with its attested international success, now required a really good laboratory to follow it out. No more was said, but the next week Coombs invited Ken and Prudence Myer to spend a weekend in Canberra at the Australian National University, when he showed Ken the John Curtin School of Medical Research. This was an imposing building. Coombs's percipient planting of the seed was notable, but possibly the outcome surprised even him. On the Monday night after the weekend, Myer rang me and asked: 'How much would it cost to build an internationally first-class laboratory for long-term survival experiments on animals, such as you are working on?' The answer I gave was a quarter of a million pounds, and Myer's immediate response was: 'I know somebody who has some of that'. He named his accountant, Arnold Hancock. Ken then suggested that a dinner be held later in the week with Sir Ian Potter. This occurred on the Wednesday night, with Baillieu Myer, Professor R. D. Wright, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Sir Sydney Sunderland, and myself present. Ken proposed to Sir Ian that they undertake to raise 150,000 pounds of the funds required, and that they between them put in 100,000 pounds. Sir Ian immediately agreed to go halves, and then went further and suggested that the whole amount be underwritten by them, so that it would be possible for the scientists to go ahead and plan the building immediately. An architect, Barry Patten, was chosen by the Friday night and a site identified in the grounds of the University of Melbourne on which to build the laboratories. It fell to Professor Wright to persuade his colleagues in the Faculty, as well as the Vice-Chancellor, to let this building be constructed on what was then the women's hockey field of the University. This was situated in the south-west corner of the university campus, and anteceded the new Medical Centre that was later built there. Wright had a good ally in Sir Leslie Martin, the recently appointed first Chairman of the Australian Universities Commission, and the University agreed. Given this flying start, I made an approach to the Rockefeller Foundation whose Director of Medical Sciences, Dr Robert Morison, noted that Australia had been sitting on its hands for twenty years as far as the Foundation was concerned, and that this was a welcome new move. Within five minutes he agreed to provide 50,000 pounds. Sir Ian Potter then approached the Prime Minster, Sir Robert Menzies, who agreed that the Commonwealth would contribute 100,000 pounds. A contribution by the University made it possible for construction of the laboratories to embody fully the plan worked out by the architect and scientists. When it was constructed, the building represented possibly the finest facility in the world for long-term survival experiments on large animals. The National Institutes of Health in Washington made the same observation on its character in 2004, in the course of making a grant to the scientists then working there.

The University of Melbourne, having agreed that the proposed ten-floor laboratories would be built, suggested that the building might be named after Myer and Potter. Ken, on the other hand, proposed that it would be consonant with the whole spirit of the enterprise if it were named for a distinguished Australian who had made a major contribution to medical knowledge. Howard Florey, President of the Royal Society, was well-known personally to the scientists in the group, and in particular to Professor Wright. Myer and Potter were warm to the notion that the laboratories might be named after Florey, who was due to visit Australia to undertake experimental work in the Department of Physiology. When asked, Florey consented. At the opening ceremony on 30 August 1963, he expressed his warm appreciation in characteristic fashion. The Prime Minister dedicated the building and Florey responded by stating:

This is a red letter day because those who have generously provided the wherewithal have stood aside and allowed this splendid building to be named after me, although I have been, for so long, absent from Australia. I am very sensible of this honour. It is an honour which comes to few people, and an honour I particular appreciate receiving because it comes before I am completely dead.

He added:

The value of a laboratory such as this is that it will make discoveries, and that in the ambience of a university it has a maximum chance of stimulating the powers of enquiry of young men and women yet to come. There are always some whom a university will influence and educate to appreciate the beauty of experiments carefully planned, elegantly executed and clearly described.

Once occupied in 1962, the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine progressed satisfactorily, working well with the University of Melbourne and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington. NIH support exceeded, three- to four-fold, that supplied by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council. This meant that the Laboratories were largely American-supported. Furthermore, the staffing and activity exceeded that of the Department of Physiology itself.

Future funding of the Laboratories was brought to a head in 1967 by the Bureau of the Budget in the USA, which, because of America's gold reserve situation, decided to cut back on foreign research grants. It appeared that within three months there would be no funds to support about twenty people in the Howard Florey Laboratories. Bridging finance was provided by the Myer family, Sir Ian Potter, and the Reserve Bank of Australia. It was clear that the survival of what had been established depended on developing an independent base that would allow the Laboratories to seek support on a state, national and international basis, in a way that would not have been possible within the framework of a University department.

Kenneth Myer played a major role in the developments that led to the establishment of The Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine by incorporation through an Act of the Victorian Parliament in 1971. Discussions among those who had played a major role in establishing the Laboratories focused on the principle that Sir Ian Potter epitomized with the statement: 'We don't want a university sherry party committee. We want responsibility.' This embodied the view that if those concerned were going to give major time, effort and finance, they should have formal responsibility for the future of the enterprise. The Act of Incorporation was modelled on the Constitution of Harvard College. The Trustees were defined as a self-perpetuating group who had perpetual succession, with each remaining in office until death or by compounding with their creditors or going insane or resigning. In the event of a Trustee dropping out, the other Trustees had the right to nominate a successor. This gave a continuity of responsibility and an institutional memory. The model appeared to have served Harvard well for more than 300 years. Ken was enthusiastic about this Constitution, which was somewhat novel for the Australian scene.

The Act establishing the Howard Florey Institute envisaged its having nine Originating Members, namely Kenneth Myer, Baillieu Myer, Sir Ian Potter, Dr H. C. Coombs, Sir John Phillips, Dame Hilda Stevenson, Professor R. D. Wright, Mr Evelyn de Rothschild and me. The Act also specified that the Commonwealth of Australia, through the National Health and Medical Research Council, might nominate two members to the Board. The Victorian Government and the University of Melbourne similarly were each to have two members. The Act also provided for the appointment of Members at Large of the Institute, in addition to the Originating Members, and the Board had the power to nominate three additional members of the Board from the Members at Large, who were mainly citizens who had helped in either the scientific or the material development of the Institute. With great help from Sir Ernest Coates, Director of the State Treasury, the Act was introduced into the Victorian Parliament in 1971 by the then Premier, Sir Henry Bolte, and was supported by all parties. Kenneth Myer was elected President of the Institute, and thus Chairman of the Board, and he continued in this role until his death in July 1992. I was appointed Founding Director.

Within a year of its Incorporation, the Institute was awarded an Institutional Block Grant by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council. This was the second so given, the first having been awarded to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. It enabled the Institute to invite Dr Hugh Niall and Dr Geoffrey Tregear, who ran the Peptide Laboratory of the Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard University, to return to Australia, where they initiated programmes not only on peptide sequencing and synthesis but on cloning, gene sequencing and synthesis. This led to the sequencing, cloning and synthesis of the relaxin gene in several species, including man, and made the Institute a leading centre for molecular biology. This development was fully supported by Kenneth Myer, who gave me every assistance and also provided financial help through the Myer Foundation.

The resulting body of basic biomedical knowledge underpinning aspects of clinical development is an enduring legacy of Kenneth Myer's to scientific endeavour. In his will, he made a bequest to the Howard Florey Institute that is currently worth nearly three million dollars. He was succeeded as President of the Institute by his brother Baillieu Myer and more recently by his son Martyn who became President in 2004.

The Division of Plant Industry of CSIRO

Given Kenneth Myer's fascination with botany and plants, it was natural that he should have developed an interest in the work of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. His enthusiasm was matched by that of Yasuko who, as an established painter of flowers on ceramics, had a deep fascination with plants. Conjointly, they were powerful advocates of the research of the Division led by Dr Jim Peacock, and they also played an important role in the commercialization of the Division's research by providing post-doctoral fellowships. One of these was directed to drought-induced genes in plants, which in turn helped to develop drought resistance in Australian crops. The genetic manipulation of plants was a paramount consideration. Ken personally supported the development of the Gene Shears Company, and also provided support for a Master of Science position in the Division's Biotechnology Program. Ken also arranged, through the Myer Foundation, for the data-basing of the specimen collection of the Division's herbarium, thereby computerizing the details of more than fifty thousand samples of Australia's plants. Just a few weeks prior to his and Yasuko's tragic death, he spoke of the privilege it had been to support the Plant Industry Fellowship Scheme. If Australia wished to add value to its agricultural and food-processing industries, he said, it must invest in more applied research projects. Jim Peacock speaks of Ken as a man with remarkable vision, but also as a warm human being with a great smile and boundless enthusiasm and energy, who inspired all who had the privilege of meeting or dealing with him.

Chairmanship of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

When Kenneth Myer was invited in 1983 to become the Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), he asked one or two of his friends whether they thought he should take it on. The response he received was affirmative and enthusiastic. His friends recognised from his National Library experience and his involvement in experimental science that he had an enormous enthusiasm for technology. He therefore could serve as a powerful advocate for the embattled national broadcasting system. A large number of people felt that Australia was well served by the ABC, and were loyal to it. The ABC's portfolio of television, Radio Australia, and the national medium wave and FM radio programmes was almost unrivalled – the only parallel was the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). This was in Kenneth Myer's mind when he accepted the invitation that, in time, had an unhappy outcome. Ken's enthusiasm was set against the fact that his circumstances of life had accustomed him to things going his way. Being chairman of the Myer Emporium for a considerable period did not help to temper that orientation.

When he first entered the ABC, he and his wife Yasuko visited the many areas of its activities. Ken was full of questions and clearly to the forefront of his mind were things the Government might be persuaded to do, to strengthen the functions of the ABC technologically. Arguably, there could not have been a better advocate for the Corporation in this regard, had other matters not overwhelmed him.

The best recounting of the problems that arose is in a book written by the then staff representative on the Board of the ABC, Tom Molomby. 4 Molomby was a barrister who had been involved with the ABC at a production level for a number of years before becoming the staff representative on the Board. He precipitated Ken's resignation from the chairmanship, and what he says gives an interesting insight into Ken Myer's character. Despite the great qualities I have attempted to bring out in this account of his life, occasionally his judgment could veer off course, and Molomby's reflections convey facets of Ken's cast of mind known to friends and family. He did not care for confrontation and was deflected from what could have been a constructive outcome for the ABC because he came into conflict with members of the Board experienced in the law and journalism. Ken defended his Chief Executive Officer, Geoffrey Whitehead, when evidence from some quarters indicated that this was not a good cause.

Molomby's book recounts differences between Board members and the Chief Executive Officer, and the fact that Ken failed to resolve the issue. Molomby, with his legal background, was strongly of the view that the Chief Executive Officer was unable to deny him as a Board member access to crucial documents that should have been available to all Board members and not just to a selected group. Ultimately he took Whitehead to court and won the case. In a debate within the Board, Ken took the view that the Board should pay the legal costs of both parties, and asserted that that had always been the understanding. Molomby denied this and stated that had such a proposal come up, he, because of his intense interest in the issue, would have remembered it. The argument became too much for Ken Myer's patience and he left the meeting amid signs of considerable emotion – he walked home, conveyed his resignation to the Government, and never returned. He left the next day for Tokyo. This occurred in April 1986.

This was an unhappy episode when viewed against Ken's creative involvement in so many other areas, but perhaps it reflected the conflicting forces in a body such as the ABC. The professional capacities underpinning the position of those involved were different from what he had encountered in other contexts, and he was unable to manage them with the same success and equanimity that had attended his involvement in other institutions. His great strength was in the creative process, with the setting up of institutions or the modifying of them in circumstances that gave him a major role, rather than in situations where strong political forces were operative. It is interesting to conjecture what might have happened, had he accepted Gough Whitlam's invitation to become Governor-General of Australia.

The light plane accident in Alaska that terminated Ken's and Yasuko's lives was a terrible tragedy for his family, his close friends, and a wide circle who admired him immensely and were captivated by his infectious grin and laugh, his wilder enthusiasms, and his extraordinary charm. A predominant element in his life was his great delight in nature and his joy in being in wild, remote places. He revelled in fly fishing, at which he was skilled, and though he seemed depressed when he failed to catch anything, it was obvious that the rushing rivers and forest more than compensated. The rivers and lakes of Australia's Snowy Mountains were the main setting, but Alaska became a great attraction. The rivers and mountains there were on a much grander scale, and the big fish in the rushing waters excited him immensely.

Ken, with his brother Baillieu and his sisters, amplified the course set by their parents in philanthropy. Succeeding generations of the Myer family have followed this path. Without doubt Ken Myer changed Australia for the better.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.18, no.1, 2007. It was written by Derek Denton, Department of Physiology, University of Melbourne, Australia.


  1. Thompson, J. K. (1962). Kenneth Baillieu Myer: An Appreciation. National Library of Australia News November 1992, 7-10.
  2. 2. Denton, D. A. (1948). Renal regulation of extracellular fluid. Nature 162(4120), 618.
  3. Denton, D. A., Goding, J. R. & Wright, R. D. (1959). Control of adrenal secretion of electrolyte active steroids. British Medical Journal 2(5150), 447-456.
  4. Molomby, T. (1991). Is There a Moderate on the Roof? (Heinemann: Melbourne.)

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