Honouring the gifts of life through giving

Dr Penelope Foster and her husband of almost 30 years, Associate Professor John McBain, believe they have enjoyed the most fortunate of lives. It was not always easy, but with difficult years having evolved into the best of times, the pioneers of IVF medicine in Melbourne have been inspired to share their good fortune with others.

Their endowment, known as the Penelope Foster and John McBain AO Medical Scholarship, is providing an annual four-year scholarship in perpetuity for completion of a medical degree, to support students demonstrating a need for assistance. Dr Foster (MBBS 1976) believes that the scholarship should be seen as a reward for resilience rather than carrying any perceived stigma of an underprivileged background.

“I was very moved when I met the first recipient of the scholarship,” she explains. “I had a lump in my throat. She’s an admirable young woman who will go a long, long way and will make the most of her opportunities.” The recipient need look no further than her benefactors for inspiration.

Professor McBain, recognised five years ago with an AO for his work in reproductive medicine, was raised in social housing in Glasgow. His first job was working as a dustbin man, or ‘garbo’, while at weekends he would sell men’s suits for a British department store.

But he had set his sights high, with his self-belief and brain power carrying him throughout. When he graduated from the University of Glasgow, he was the first of his family to obtain a degree.

However, he does not believe students today should have to replicate his experience to realise their dreams. “At this stage in our lives, where we have had good fortune with our medical careers and investments, we can try to make it easier for someone else,” he explains. “I was very impressed with the young woman who earned this first scholarship and I saw many parallels between her story and my own.

“She was the first person from her high school to study medicine as, indeed, I was the first person from my school to gain admission to the medical faculty at Glasgow University.”

Dr Foster’s career journey is also a study in determination. Her parents went without to provide their eight children with private schooling and the opportunity to have a university education. Apart from a grandfather, no one in the family had been tertiary educated.

“I certainly didn’t come from an affluent background but life has been extremely good to me,” she says. “I feel a great sense of joy, as does John, that we have been privileged to be able to help others.”

The couple first met at the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, while they were attending an IVF Conference where Professor McBain was a plenary lecturer. At the time, Dr Foster was working at an IVF unit in Bristol, while Professor McBain was breaking ground in reproductive medicine at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital. They hardly exchanged a word then, but their paths crossed again when Dr Foster began working in the IVF unit at the Royal Women’s in 1987. These were the days when female doctors in the UK were expected to gown up in the nurses’ changing room rather than in the doctors’ changing room. “Well, you won’t need to guess where I gowned up’,” she exclaims.

Dr Foster’s staunch sense of self had been nurtured during her years studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. It was such a liberating experience after years of stricture at a Catholic girls’ school. As she tells it, the experience was like getting glasses for the first time; the world seemed so different, so much more exciting and exhilarating.

The friendships forged have endured a lifetime – the class celebrated its 40th reunion two years ago – with the recollection of those heady student days fuelling her desire to establish a scholarship. Having made her own way through University on a Commonwealth scholarship and by working a number of jobs, including stints in nursing homes, she wanted recipients to be able to enjoy life as students, to make friends and socialise,  free of the struggle to find money for rent and living costs.

But it was while attending the launch last year of Dr Donald Hossack’s memoirs, The Weaver’s Son: Odyssey of an Australian Surgeon, that the idea for the scholarship finally crystallised. Encouraged and supported by the University, Dr Hossack OBE, PSM (MBBS 1954, BA 1975, MD 2006) had overcome crippling dyslexia to become an eminent surgeon and the man behind the introduction of alcohol breath-testing and mandatory seat belt laws.

During the launch, a young medical student told a moving story about how a scholarship had changed his life. As someone who values the power of education and perseverance, the messages of the evening resonated deeply with Dr Foster.

“I went home and talked to John about it and we decided to establish our scholarship,” she says.

Giving is something that the couple have grown accustomed to; they established the Diane Foster Bursary at the Royal Women’s Hospital in honour of Dr Foster’s mother, a woman who placed a premium on education but who did not go to university because her family believed secretarial work was a more suitable occupation at that time for young women. No such discrimination was permitted in the home she created for her own family.

Some years ago, the couple also helped sponsor a choir that wanted to travel in Europe. “All the children wrote back to thank us,” recalls Dr Foster. “But one wanted to know why we would do something like this for people we didn’t know. I wrote back and explained that life had been extremely kind to us and that we felt both blessed and privileged to be able to help others.”

The couple involve their children in discussions about their philanthropy. “John and I both believe it’s important that they know how to use assets wisely and humanely and that they see the value in letting others have opportunities.”

The inaugural recipient of the medical scholarship, who prefers to remain anonymous, said the money would make a “world of difference”, allowing her to fund textbooks, vaccinations and equipment. She worked part-time to support herself through VCE and a Bachelor of Biomedicine.

“To be financially supported during this journey through medical school is going to be invaluable.”

It’s a bittersweet irony that as she looks forward to a fulfilling career in medicine, Professor McBain has decided to bring his to a close later this year, when he will turn 70. “I feel that my hospital department needs a fresh set of eyes and a new energy in leadership,” he explains.

His retirement will bring down the curtain on an illustrious career. At a time when it was outlawed, Professor McBain campaigned in the 1990s for de facto couples in Victoria to be able to use IVF.  He also brought a landmark action against the Victorian government to allow single women, and women in same-sex relationships, to have access to infertility treatment, including IVF.

His career in medicine might never have happened had he not won a WH Rhodes Travelling Scholarship during his last year of high school. It took him to the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, or Expo ’67 as it was better known, where he met a group of students who were busily shaping their future careers in medicine.

“And I thought, ‘I can do that, too’,” he recalls. On returning home, he announced to his family that he would study to be a doctor rather than a teacher. The news surprised some. “One of our neighbours said, ‘Isn’t he getting above himself?’ My mother was affronted by that.”

So, too, might be the thousands of infertile couples he and Dr Foster have supported to parenthood.