When Chuck Feeney pledged $10 million to the Kirby Institute in 2011, he was investing in a smaller institute. He was impressed by the people who worked there, and he wanted to invest in ‘good researchers’.
In 2011, no one had heard of COVID-19, but The Atlantic Philanthropies saw the potential to build a research hub at UNSW Sydney that could help tackle any new pandemic that may emerge. Almost ten years later, the importance of this generous donation could not be greater.
The Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney would not be where it is today without the support of Chuck Feeney through his charity The Atlantic Philanthropies. Last week it was announced that the generous billionaire has achieved his lifetime goal of giving away his entire fortune.
In 2011, at the Kirby Institute’s 25th anniversary, The Atlantic Philanthropies pledged $10 million to the Kirby Institute to support the Institute’s move from Darlinghurst to a new, purpose-built facility on UNSW's Kensington campus.
“The move to the Kensington campus UNSW, and the state-of-the-art facilities that have become the Kirby’s home, has been crucial in the evolution of the Kirby Institute. Today, we are a globally renowned infectious disease research centre, thanks in a large part to the generosity of Mr Chuck Feeney,” said Professor Anthony Kelleher, Director of the Kirby Institute. “The Atlantic Philanthropies commitment led to a matching $10 million from private philanthropy in Australia, meaning the pledge effectively provided the impetus to raise a total of $20 million in philanthropic funding for the Kirby Institute. This is an outstanding contribution, for which we are extremely grateful.
The Kirby Institute’s move to a single site on UNSW’s Kensington campus, which brought the majority of it researchers to one site for the first time in a decade facilitated formal and informal interactions and fostered collaborative work on innovated programs and projects.
Since its relocation, the Kirby Institute has grown in size year on year, and expanded its scope of work to include a broader group of infectious diseases. There are now 12 programs of research across a range of infectious diseases and disciplines. Our molecules to populations approach has cemented our status as one of Australia’s premier medical research institutes. Researchers have contributed to global knowledge that if a person living with HIV is on medication and has an undetectable viral load, their risk of transmitting the virus is effectively zero. In hepatitis C, Kirby Institute research has made the case for the listing of highly curative direct-acting antivirals on the Australian government’s subsidised Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. In remote Aboriginal communities Kirby Institute research is delivering point-of-care testing for STIs, where the test, results and if necessary, treatment can be delivered in a single clinic visit, making healthcare more accessible to those in remote regions.
With the global outbreak of COVID-19, the Kirby Institute laboratories have become a hub of research activity for UNSW virologists, immunologists, clinician researchers, epidemiologists and public health researchers as they collaboratively seek to understand how to treat and prevent COVID-19. The Kirby Institute has also been the catalyst for numerous COVID-19 research collaborations including with NSW Health and the Australian Government, that have significantly contributed to Australia’s response to COVID-19.
“The relationships forged within the institute and across UNSW and its partners during our last five years on campus have been vital in allowing us to rapidly adapt and reorganise to conduct research in response to COVID-19,” said Professor Kelleher.
In 2011, Chuck Feeney attended the institute’s 25th anniversary celebrations in person. The Institute’s Director at the time, Professor David Cooper thanked Mr Feeney for his generous support saying the US-based philanthropist's style of giving could only be described as ‘muscular’. "Mr Feeney understands that major health threats to the social fabric need a major response and we thank him for his leadership in this field," said the late Professor Cooper who died in 2018. His insights on the potential for pandemics to dramatically disrupt daily life resonate poignantly in a COVID-19 world.
The Institute’s Patron, the Hon. Michael Kirby, said that in donating his entire fortune within his lifetime Chuck Feeney’s legacy should serve as a sharp reminder for the importance radical kindness as the world faces COVID-19. “Chuck Feeney has shown the way for Australians. His contribution was immense. It’s now time for others to follow.”
Image: David Gonski - UNSW Sydney Chancellor, Michael Kirby - Patron of the Kirby Institute, Chuck Feeney, Fred Hilmer - Former Vice Chancellor UNSW Sydney, Charles Curran - Chair St Vicent's Curran Foundation at the Kirby Institute's 25th anniversary celebrations