20 years of driving growth

20 years of driving growth

Peter Burrows AO is one of the lesser known heroes of The George Institute. Without his passion for medical research and financial acumen, the Institute might never have been established.

A stockbroker by trade, supporting health and medical research has long been a family tradition. Peter’s father had been President of the Sydney Children’s Hospital for many years before Peter himself joined its Board for 14 years, 12 of them as treasurer.

However, it was while he was President of the Medical Foundation at the University of Sydney that Peter first heard about a talented young academic, the Institute’s co-founder Stephen MacMahon.

“I was told that Stephen was a very promising researcher and that he was going to accept an offer at the University of Oxford,” Peter recalls. “He was based in New Zealand at the time and was coming through Sydney. There was an opportunity to meet and try to persuade him to come to Sydney instead of Oxford. As a result of that interview I offered Stephen a three-year research grant from The Medical Foundation.”

Fortunately, Peter was successful and soon after began helping Stephen and fellow co-founder Robyn Norton navigate the maze of legal and financial decisions related to establishing research programs in injury and cardiovascular disease.

“My strong advice was not to join a faculty but instead establish an independent institute so they wouldn't be bound by the strictures of university red tape,” he says. 

Peter helped negotiate a unique partnership with the University of Sydney that resulted in the Institute being self-funded from year one.

“That was the first time anybody had done a deal like that with the university, or any university that I know of in Australia, so it was quite groundbreaking,” he says.

He joined the newly established Institute’s Board as Chair – a role he held until 2006. As a result of Peter, Stephen and Robyn's combined efforts, the Institute was almost immediately able to start attracting the best and most promising researchers in their fields.

“Each year, the Institute was able to grow and reinvest in itself," says Peter. "Stephen and Robyn recruited very good people who shared their vision, stayed with the Institute and have all been extremely successful. The combination of these factors inspires a deep sense of loyalty."

Peter is equally clear about other crucial factors that have, in his view, ensured the Institute's continuing success.

"There was the vision and commitment right from the beginning to make a big difference, and with an international reach, although the extent of that has amazed me in the end,” he explains. “I'm absolutely staggered by what the Institute’s been able to achieve in the past 20 years."

Looking ahead, Peter sees plenty of opportunities for building on its past achievements.

"The Institute has clearly succeeded in helping to deliver better health outcomes to underprivileged people in a very cost-efficient way,” he says.

“There is therefore huge potential for replicating these outcomes across more of the developing world, which is very exciting. I think much more needs to be done in Africa in terms of health, and the Institute is well placed to achieve this.”

Celebrating 20 years: Peter's top moments

  • The growth: "Each year we got bigger and bigger and we reinvested in ourselves all the time. The global scale, the size and the areas of research have all expanded so dramatically."
  • The Institute’s achievements: “Its success has been just phenomenal, and I take my hat off to them. It's really all about its drive, vision and culture.”
  • Personal satisfaction: "It was a challenge to begin with but it came together beautifully. I've just been so pleased to see the Institute reach the heights it has already achieved and it is clearly going to achieve even more."