Over 500 scientists, clinicians and students have been funded in their pursuit of science, but it started with one person, Professor Val Chapman of the University of Auckland.
Chapman was strongly intent on forming the Neurological Foundation, and with the pursuit of science at its core, he was joined by others. Phillip Wrightson, John Carman, Gavin Glasgow, Barry Cant and many others joined, helping Chapman form what we know today as the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand.
From the very beginning, the Neurological Foundation had a profound purpose, to help those living with a neurological condition through a better understanding of the disease via research. Chapman and Wrightson were the driving force behind this very important message, and as the years went by it became evident they were not the only ones who believed in helping the lives of Kiwis through research.
Prior to 1970 there was very little offered in New Zealand for scientists and clinicians to conduct research on the brain and neurological conditions. Dr I.M. “Dusty” Allen, a Wellington neurologist, wrote dozens of papers describing the symptoms and signs of neurological disorders. Dr John “Jock” Egerton Caughey, an Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Otago, made important contributions in the study of a muscle disorder called myotonic dystrophy, poliomyelitis and other neurological conditions. Dr Murray Falconer, an Associate Professor of neurosurgery in Dunedin kicked off a productive career in neurosurgical research before he left New Zealand; and Dr J.C. “Jack” Eccles was a Professor of Physiology at the University of Otago whose work in Dunedin helped to show that synaptic transmission was by chemical means rather than electrical. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1963 for his work. The commonality among these three individuals was, they all went abroad to pursue a career in research because there was none offered in New Zealand – here is where our story begins.
The development of neurology and neurosurgery departments in the main New Zealand hospitals after 1955, the opening of the new medical school in Auckland in 1968, and the expansion of the Otago Medical School, meant there was a greater need for research funding into neurological diseases. However, the initiative to establish an organisation to fund neurological research in New Zealand came not from a medical professional. Chapman, although a professor, was a Professor of Botany, not neurology, at the University of Auckland, and yet he started a legacy of funding neurological research which has, so far, continued for 50 years.
Chapman was born in Alcester, Warwickshire in England. He graduated with a Master of Arts in Botany from Cambridge University and was awarded his doctorate for research into the salt marshes of East Anglia. In 1939 he led a research expedition to Jamaica, and it was this experience that triggered a lifelong interest in mangroves about which he became an international authority. He arrived in New Zealand in 1945, after he was appointed as the first Professor of Botany at the Auckland University College (the precursor of the University of Auckland). Chapman and the Professor of Zoology, John Morton, were mainly responsible for setting up the University’s marine laboratory in Leigh. In the 1960’s Chapman also played an important part in planning the new School of Medicine in Auckland. Chapman became interested in neurology when a family member developed epilepsy. Epilepsy was still a socially unacceptable disorder in the community at the time and Chapman realised there was a desperate need for public education and assistance for people with epilepsy. In 1956 he founded the New Zealand Epilepsy Association, and he was its first organisational president. The Epilepsy Association developed into a very successful organisation, which provided education, advocacy, and support services for people with epilepsy and their families. The limited funds available to the Epilepsy Association were used for public education and patient care, leaving nothing for research.
Chapman appreciated that research provided the best prospect of understanding the causes of neurological diseases and improving their treatments. The idea of a neurological foundation to fund neuroscience research arose from discussions between Chapman, John Carman, the Professor of Anatomy in the new medical school in Auckland, Gavin Glasgow, neurologist and Philip Wrightson, neurosurgeon at Auckland Hospital.
In 1970 Chapman proposed to the New Zealand Epilepsy Association to sponsor a national appeal to raise capital funds for the establishment of a research foundation for neurological diseases. A medical steering committee was convened by Carman to advise the Epilepsy Association on medical aspects of the formation of the Neurological Foundation. The other members of the steering committee were Glasgow, Wrightson and Barry Cant, a young clinical neurophysiologist at Auckland Hospital, who had recently returned to New Zealand after training at the Mayo Clinic. The medical steering committee felt the Foundation should confine its support to neurological research, leaving patient support and advocacy to organisations like the Epilepsy Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
The Lions Clubs and several distinguished New Zealanders were recruited to support the appeal, which was launched on radio by the Governor-General, Sir Arthur Porritt. At first, Chapman was the principal organiser of the appeal, but the size of the task meant that he could not continue in that role while still working full-time for the University and so Mr. W.I. Parks was appointed as the full-time organiser. The fundraising appeal was organised in Auckland, but it was supported by branches of the Epilepsy Association and by neurologists, neurosurgeons, and neuroscientists from throughout the rest of New Zealand. The Bryant Trust of Hamilton initiated the appeal with a donation of $45,000. In the end the fundraising appeal eventually produced $70,057, which was used to start the Foundation and ultimately fund the first round of grants in 1972.
The Neurological Foundation was incorporated on 28 October 1971. The first councillors were Professor Chapman, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson the Mayor of Auckland City, businessman John Seabrook, Mervyn Vile (a Christchurch accountant), Len Hart, Rolf Porter, Gerald McDouall (General Manager of the Wanganui Savings Bank) and Peter Shaw (a chartered accountant from Hamilton). Another businessman, Arnold Babington, was appointed as a special Councillor on recommendation of the New Zealand Council of District Governors of Lions International, as the Lion’s Club played a major role in the fundraising appeal and the beginning of the Foundation.
The inaugural Council meeting was held on 9 December 1971 in the Foundation’s first registered office in His Majesty’s Arcade on Auckland’s Queen Street. From the beginning, the Council decided the income from donations, legacies and the annual appeal would be conserved as capital funds and that research grants would be funded from the interest, which is a model still upheld to this day. By 1982, the Foundation had more than 8,000 members and the capital funds exceeded one million dollars, yielding $100,000 of interest each year to fund research.
At the second meeting of the Council on 6 March 1972, a Scientific Advisory Committee was set up which consisted of nominees of the two medical schools and the Epilepsy Association. Professor Carman, Dr Glasgow, and Mr Wrightson represented the University of Auckland. The University of Otago nominees were the Dean, Professor W.E. Adams, the Dean of the Christchurch Clinical School, Professor G.L. Rolleston, and the Dunedin neurologist, Dr Keith MacLeod. The Epilepsy Association had three representatives: Professor Chapman and two neurologists, Dr Jack Bergin of Wellington, and Dr Charles Crawford of Napier.
The Scientific Advisory Committee met for the first time on the 3 July 1972 when they decided to start advertising grant funding for research projects into neurological conditions. On Monday 27 November 1972, they met officially to decide which grants would be funded. A sum of $65,000 was made available for grants during the first three years, and the committee recommended that seven research projects should be funded for that amount of time. This started the next 50 years of funding neurological research and education across New Zealand.
Since 1972, the Scientific Advisory Committee has continued to meet to ensure the very best and brightest of Kiwi clinicians and scientists are funded. As the Foundation grew, so too did the type of funding – it evolved from general grants to large and small projects; the addition of postgraduate scholarships and fellowships and now, there are over 14 different grants researchers can apply for, totalling $5 million of funding given on an annual basis.
Professor Chapman, who died in 1980, deservingly had the honour of having one of the first fellowships named after him. The Chapman Fellowship is still awarded to this day to medical graduates to obtain research and clinical experience at centres of excellence with the aim that they bring these new skills and knowledge back to New Zealand. The first two individuals to receive these fellowships now hold positions with the Neurological Foundation as well as prestigious positions within the New Zealand medical field. Dr Neil Anderson, a neurologist at Auckland Hospital and the Neurological Foundation Chief Medical Advisor, was the first recipient; and Dr Barry Snow, Medical Director of Adult Health Services at Auckland District Health Board and the Neurological Foundation Council Chair, was the second.
Mr Phillip Wrightson was the second individual to be honoured with a fellowship named after them in 1997. This fellowship marked the Neurological Foundation’s 25th anniversary of awarding grants and is now awarded to scientists for international training in neuroscience after completion of a PhD. The first to receive this illustrious fellowship was Professor Bronwen Connor, 2018 Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and Head of the Neural Reprogramming and Repair Lab at the Centre for Brain Research.
The Neurological Foundation has been an organisation founded on excellence and hope for 50 years. Professor Chapman, Mr Wrightson, Professor Carman, Dr Glasgow, and Dr Cant all knew the research funded by the Foundation would change lives, and they were not wrong. Since its inception, the legacy of these five men is embedded within the core of what the Neurological Foundation stands for. Because of these five men, the Neurological Foundation has gone onto funding initiatives like the Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank, which is world renowned for brain research, and life-saving procedures such as the clot retrieval, led by the Neurological Foundation Chair of Clinical Neurology. They provided careers for scientists and clinicians throughout New Zealand, have saved lives and most importantly, provided hope. Hope that future generations will live in a world without neurological disease.