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Peter Weiss gives four million for lung research

22 February 2020
Celebrated arts philanthropist supports medicine 

Renowned Sydney businessman and philanthropist Peter Weiss AO is advancing medical knowledge of lung disease with $4 million of funding for critical research. 

Mr Weiss, who became famous in the 1980s for his fashion business, then for his contribution to the arts, was diagnosed in 2012 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The condition refers to progressive lung conditions including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In 2018 lung cancer was added to Mr Weiss’ diagnosis.

Commenting recently on the toll the disease has taken on his life, eventually including constant breathlessness and a reliance on an oxygen tank, Mr Weiss said, “I really feel pretty ordinary but then I front up and continue.”

Credit: Tim Bauer

At a point in 2018 when he was critically ill with the disease he realised there was a shortage of researchers into COPD and decided to channel his energies into supporting them. Reflecting on the decision and his philanthropy in general he said, “There’s not a lot of joy around, these things give me joy.”

The funds will enable University of Sydney researchers based at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR) and Westmead Hospital, including leading experts in infectious and respiratory disease, to investigate new ways of preventing and treating COPD. Mr Weiss $4 million gift is made up of a $2 million donation and $2 million bequest.

Professor Tony Cunningham,  outgoing Director of WIMR and a chief investigator on two of the projects said, “This money will allow ten senior researchers and at least five postgraduate students to push the envelope and advance research into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a condition that affects approximately one and a half million Australians.”

The research will extend to preventing and controlling the spread of bacterial and viral infections that often exacerbate COPD. People with the lung disease are at a higher risk of infection compared to the rest of the population, meaning common infections such as influenza can result in severe symptoms and complications, extended hospital stays with a need for intensive care, and mortality.

Mr Weiss describes COPD as a slow killer and his greatest hope for the research is that it benefits the next generation, including fulfilling the promise of developing a vaccination to fight infection.

This money will allow ten senior researchers and at least five postgraduate students to push the envelope and advance research into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a condition that affects approximately one and a half million Australians.
Professor Tony Cunningham

The research team will be working in a dedicated laboratory, the Peter Weiss Lung Research Laboratory, based at WIMR and will focus on three main research projects:

  • Preventing respiratory failure in patients with COPD including developing diagnostic tests to quickly detect infection and respiratory failure; and personalised treatment plans.
  • Improving vaccination effectiveness in at-risk populations with COPD including investigating the efficacy of nanopatch flu vaccines and the necessity of booster shots. 
  • Developing effective new vaccinations for viral infections in COPD patients. The team hope to use a component of the vaccine developed to treat shingles (which has 90 percent effectiveness).

Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence said, “Peter Weiss’s life has been characterised by his generous philanthropic support for the arts and music, bringing delight to countless people. While this donation to the University has a medical focus, at its heart it also promises to improve and enhance the quality of life of thousands of people and we are extremely grateful for, and excited by, this gift.”

Mr Weiss says he never felt like a ‘philanthropist’ in music or art but someone who made things possible. The importance for him was leadership in persuading others to follow his example in philanthropy. “Similarly I hope that the University can lasso some other donors to contribute to this research!”

Peter Weiss' biography

Peter Weiss is one of Australia’s most successful businessmen and arts philanthropists. Born in 1935 in Vienna, Peter came to Australia with his family in 1939.

A man of humble beginnings, he was brought up in a musical family and from childhood had a passion for playing the cello. Peter was educated in Sydney in 1973 and founded his company, “Weiss” there, becoming a highly successful leader in the fashion industry.

In the mid-1980s, he began to turn his attention to the arts. While principally focusing his energies on the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony, the Art Gallery of NSW, and the University’s Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he studied as a young man, Peter assisted a multitude of organisations and backed dozens of projects and initiatives.

Peter supported the Australian Youth Orchestra by providing two annual scholarships and is a Founding Patron of the Australian World Orchestra. In 2007, Weiss purchased a 1729 Giuseppe Guarneri cello valued at $1.8 million, and gave it to the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  

In 2018 the Sydney Opera House announced that Weiss would donate $1 million over four years to fund new rehearsal rooms for its concert hall. Another $1 million will go to the AGNSW to fund the first sculpture that will greet visitors in the new sculpture garden of its Sydney Modern expansion.

Extraordinary contributions such as these saw him recognised as a Member in the general division of the Order of Australia in 1995 for service to the arts and he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2013, for distinguished service to the arts, particularly orchestral music.

The honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) was conferred upon Peter Weiss by the University of Sydney in 2012.

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