Home  >  About Perkins  >  Remembering Harry Perkins


22 years ago this March, the Perkins came into being. Back then, we were called the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research. We occupied a building in Block B of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

It was cramped, old and overcrowded. It certainly didn’t have appeal – no one would want to work in a windowless basement under a hospital. If we were to attract world-class researchers, we needed to look like a world-class facility.

Then one man came into my life that changed everything. He was visionary and his name was Harry Perkins.

Harry was born and bred in WA. He came from the Wheatbelt town of Bruce Rock.

Harry didn’t finish his formal education. His father passed away and, at 22, he took over the family farm. He was always interested in innovation and improvements. He won a Nuffield Scholarship and travelled to Europe to study farming and bring best practices back to WA.

He told me once of a farm he visited in Denmark. It was beautiful. Fertile crops, green pastures, streamlined systems. He remarked to the farmer that it was the best farm he’d ever seen. The farmer surprised Harry by saying that he envied Harry’s own farm, in the dusty Wheatbelt. He said to Harry, “In Australia, you have the opportunity to build something.”

Harry never forgot this. Some would say that it was his inspiration for the future, because build something he did.

On Harry’s Birthday, we are looking back to where we came from and the people who influenced our past and shaped our future. Those people include you and other supporters like you.

Without visionaries like Harry, medical research in this State would not have flourished like it has. And without you, there would be medical no advances in research. Your continued support keeps our labs operational and our researchers working towards breakthroughs.

In Bruce Rock, Harry was actively involved in building a successful farming cooperative. He learnt the power of collaboration, that more could be achieved by working together and sharing innovative ideas.  A lesson he returned to in his life again and again.

Harry was appointed to the board of Wesfarmers in 1975, he stayed on that board until 2002. He brought with him his a deep-seated belief in continuous improvement, as well as a personal commitment to the community, education and science.

You might have known Harry yourself, I met him in the early 1990s. Back then, Professor Peter Klinken (now WA’s Chief Scientist) and myself had a vision to establish a world-class medical research facility in Perth and we believed Harry was the man who could help us.

We talked about the challenges we faced, many of which Harry could directly relate to – competing for scarce resources, collaborating effectively and attracting the best talent to Western Australia.

And we told Harry about the power of medical research and the urgent need for the people of WA to have access to the best medical professionals and the latest treatments. Our work could save lives and keep families together for longer.

I could almost see Harry’s mind whirling behind his inquisitive eyes. Harry loved a problem and we had posed a big one. Just like a researcher tackling disease, Harry was hooked and determined to find a solution.

He set about realising his vision to build a hub of medical research in Western Australia with a local focus and a global impact.

By supporting the Perkins you contribute to a knowledge of disease and that can never wear out or be used up. It will go on to future generations, here in Western Australia and globally.

You see, like you, Harry had a passion for medical research and he too saw a need in the community and how he could help. Your generous donations to the Perkins show me that you share this drive to take action.

Through sheer determination and a generous network of people, Harry raised the initial funding needed to establish the Institute. He became infamous for his fundraising efforts, we joke that he had to begin telephone calls with “I promise I am not calling about the Institute…” just to have people stay on the line with him.

You see, Harry inspired the West Australian community to come together for medical research. No matter their motivation for giving – scientific interest, happiness and wellbeing, community health, economic impact – above all, people knew that their investment would ultimately benefit themselves or their loved ones in the future.

The spirit of generosity has continued for many years. You, and other people like you, continue the vision that Harry started with your continued kindness and support.

Today the Harry Perkins Institute is Western Australia’s leading adult research centre, housing more than 250 bright minded researchers. We focus on diseases that are prevalent in WA communities and devastate our families – cancer, heart disease, diabetes and genetic disease.

True to Harry’s vision, collaboration is key to everything we do. From bio-medical engineers to clinicians, surgeons to scientists, everybody at the Perkins is working toward one mission: to keep families together for as long as possible.

The most important collaboration we have is with you. Our community. It is you we strive to serve. And you, in turn, make our work possible.

Much has changed over the past twenty two years. The speed at which we can make discoveries and apply them to people with disease has been accelerated by advances in technology. We can do more than ever, and faster.

But the devastating impact imposed by disease in our community continues. Whilst research has had a significant impact on some diseases such as breast cancer, which is now generally has above a 90% survival rate. There are still many diseases without a treatment – they are our priority at the Perkins.

Funding remains a constant barrier between where we are now, and the lifesaving breakthroughs we know we can achieve. Nationally, as few as 16% of grants are awarded. There is simply not enough funding available for every project we deem to have lifesaving promise.

If you or someone you love has encountered disease, you will know how important it is to know that someone somewhere is working hard towards the best possible outcome. It gives you hope.

If you have an incurable disease, hope means that maybe you won’t be cured but the next generation will have options. To researchers, hope is that their work will be funded, reach completion and be a success so that it can benefit patients in the future.

Hope was important to Harry. It was one of his core values and he talks of hope as “rather than unfounded optimism, I would suggest hope should be a balanced desire for the right thing to happen.”

I want to end by telling you an intimate story that I am sharing with permission from Harry’s family.

Harry passed away in 2002 after a short battle with cancer. The day prior he had stepped down from work commitments. He did not get the chance to enjoy his retirement after a life devoted to his community.

The Institute had been established for eight years when Harry was diagnosed with lung cancer, a very aggressive form of lung cancer for a non-smoker. The researchers and I were devastated that there was nothing we could do for Harry.

In a few short weeks Harry’s health declined rapidly. His family wanted nothing more than to spend the remaining time he had left by his side, surrounding him with love and familiarity.

He was forced to make a difficult decision when he was identified as a suitable participant for a clinical trial taking place in the Eastern States. The trial may have helped him gain more time but he would have to travel away from his family while gravely ill.

To Harry, family was everything. I recall one year when Harry won businessman of the year, he was awarded an Order of Australia and honoured with many accolades. He was asked to choose a highlight and he responded without the need for thought: “taking my grandson to the Royal show to see his first pig.”

Harry chose to remain with his family in Western Australia. But no family should ever have to face this decision.

That is why your ongoing support is so important. By contributing to a thriving research environment, you give people in our community – including the people you love – better access to the best medical professionals and latest treatments right here in our State.

We are so proud to be in Western Australia working towards breakthroughs that will help the community in which we all work and live. And we’re so proud to have champions like you who are backing our research to find answers to the most deadly diseases.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this story and for everything you do for the community we share.

Professor Peter Leedman

Please share your birthday with us and we will celebrate it with you!

Your Birthday


The Perkins needs visionary supporters like you who understand that by leaving a gift in your Will, no matter the size, you’re ensuring the continuance of research that could one day make life-threatening diseases treatable and liveable for you and your loved ones.