Rare gifts

Rare books, generous hearts
Books have always been the key to opening doors for Professor Louise Baur - throughout her career and her lifelong learning at the University of Sydney. So it's no surprise that the internationally recognised paediatrician is also a dedicated donor of rare books. It's her way of giving back to the University.

Growing up in Sydney’s Beecroft in the 1960s and 1970s, the home of Professor Louise Baur AM FAHMS (BSc (Med) ’79, MBBS ’81, PhD (Medicine) ’93) was filled with books. Reading was always a given. Her love of reading has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of her life – and one she has now passed on in kind to the University of Sydney.

“Everyone in my family read and read,” Louise says. Time spent with family often meant reading together. In hindsight, she says, “It was wonderful to grow up in an environment where you were encouraged to think. I now look back and realise that, while some other people’s horizons were artificially limited, mine were not.” Books were one door, her “tremendously encouraging” parents were another – and the University of Sydney was the third crucial influence.

Louise is so indebted to university life that the paediatrician and Professor of Child and Adolescent Health has become one of the Rare Books and Special Collections’ most significant donors, giving a gift of a rare book – or funds to help with book maintenance – to Fisher Library annually for the past 26 years.

“The German side of my family had a wonderful bible from 1572 that I'd grown up with,” says Louise. “Dad would bring it out every now and then, and we would marvel at this ancient text.” Her parents gave her the bible when they downsized their home, and, unable to provide the right temperature-controlled environment for such a valuable artifact, Louise encouraged her father to donate the book to the library and provided a monetary gift to accompany it. “Initially, our gift was to maintain the donated books, and then it became broader; for the library to use as it wanted.”

Since then, Louise's gifts have grown and flourished. “My husband has bought me books with the intention of donating them to the University,” she says, laughing gently. “I've opened them and thought, ‘Oh, how wonderful!’ And he says, ‘I thought you might like to give it to the Library.’ He is very generous."

Young Louise was inspired by her botanist father and paediatric nurse mother to pursue her dreams. She was also influenced by a close family member's illness when she was a teenager. Both experiences shaped her beyond measure: the first was the reason she studied at the University of Sydney, and the second, the reason she studied medicine.

“My father was a botanist. He got First Class Honours at the University of Sydney, and he won the medal in forestry,” she says, still with a sense of awe. “He worked in forest ecology; he was a rainforest and eucalypt expert. That was the environment we grew up in – we were taught that science was amazing, that of course we would go to university because that's what people did.”

Louise completed three degrees at the University of Sydney between 1979 and 1993 – and for over forty years, she has contributed remarkably to our knowledge of paediatric medicine, and particularly to childhood obesity in Australia and overseas.

Professor Louise Baur clutching a book

Professor Louise Baur has a deep love for books, especially the rare kind. She has generously donated to Fisher Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

“From the very beginning, I’ve loved paediatrics. I loved working with children, families,” Louise says. "I felt I could make a real difference.” 

That is something of an understatement – Professor Louise Baur is an internationally recognised leader in the field of childhood obesity. She was recently elected as president of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. And as president of the World Obesity Federation and director of the Boden Initiative at the Charles Perkins Centre, she has been instrumental in raising the profile of child and adolescent obesity as an issue of clinical and public health importance. Her research has also improved understanding of the factors that help to predict, prevent, and manage obesity.

In 2010, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her service to medicine – for her contribution as a researcher and academic, and to the community through her support for children's charities.

Most of her research work has been funded by competitive grants, although in recent years there have been some very welcome philanthropic funds that allowed her to support postdoctoral fellows and PhD students.

One of the reasons giving is close to Louise's heart is because she has found it difficult in her own career to raise much-needed funds for research.

“It's hard to fundraise around obesity because it's controversial and the condition is stigmatised,” Louise says. “Most funding [for children's medicine] goes to oncology, heart disease and neonatal research. I'm very grateful for the money the research has received, but it would be lovely to have more.”

“Obesity is an ever evolving and hugely significant area where research can make a long-lasting impact," she says. “We ask a lot of questions every day because obesity has many contributing factors and affects so many people. How do we offer treatment for obesity that is psychologically safe? How do we personalise treatment? How do we prevent the problem in the first place – in early childhood and at other times of life?

Professor Louise Baur taking a look at Fisher Library's Rare Books and Special Collections. Shelves of books can be seen in front of her.

Professor Louise Baur taking a look at Fisher Library's Rare Books and Special Collections

“We also tend to ignore the root causes of childhood obesity that include social disadvantage,” says Louise, "and while healthy eating and exercise are important, my colleagues in the Charles Perkins Centre and I are bringing together people in public health, ecology and agriculture to think about how we change our food systems to promote health and wellbeing.

“If we think of obesity like heart disease, with all these factors contributing to it, we are more likely to understand it."

It probably helps that she is a self-described “enthusiast and an optimist.” And that the research continues to compel her. “There is so much excitement here at Westmead Precinct, every single day.” Ultimately, she adds, “It's the people who make the biggest difference to a university. And we have some incredible people.”

Louise's life is so entwined with the University that when she and her husband (also a graduate) were married, they held their wedding breakfast at the Refectory, as it held such fond memories for them. And when her father turned 90 during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, Louise and her sister (also a graduate of the University) decided against a traditional gift, instead donating funds to the Library to purchase a rare book on botany in their father's name. “It ended up being a book about the cultivation of tobacco, which we all thought was quite funny,” she says.

When lockdown restrictions were lifted, the whole family visited the library to witness the gift. A photo was taken of the family that day, and Louise's husband had it transformed into a watercolour by the artist Simon Fieldhouse. It has become one of her most prized possessions.

“It turned out to be the last outing we were able to have with my father before he became ill and passed away," she says. “So, it's now a very special gift.”

Louise continues to share her own gifts with the world in various ways. Both she and her husband have also committed to posthumous giving, which includes leaving a financial gift in her will to the Rare Books and Special Collections for Fisher Library to use as it wishes.

“The University is an incredible eco-system, with amazing treasures, wonderful people and a tremendous mission,” Louise says. “Supporting the Library is one way in which graduates, such as my husband and I can give back to the University which gave so much to us. And I've also seen how philanthropy more broadly can truly make a difference in supporting research and innovation.”

Written by Lauren Sams for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Fiona Wolf. 

15 May 2024

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