Ken Myer

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Gravesite, Box Hill Public Cemetery

Kenneth Baillieu Myer AC DSC (1 March 1921 – 30 July 1992) was an American-born Australian patron of the arts, humanities and sciences; diplomat; administrator; businessman; and philanthropist. He was a member of the notable Melbourne retailing Myer Family. Myer made significant philanthropic and personal contributions to the development of major national institutions, most notably the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, the School of Oriental Studies at the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Arts Centre and the National Library of Australia.[1] He was also the founding Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.[2]


Ken Myer was born in San Francisco, California, United States in 1921, the eldest son of Sidney Myer, who migrated to Australia from Russia in 1899, then moved to the United States to make his fortune. Sidney Myer had divorced his first wife in Reno, Nevada, but this divorce was not recognised under Australian law. His second wife, (later Dame) Merlyn Myer, travelled to San Francisco for the birth of each of her four children to ensure they would be considered legitimate.[3] The family returned to Australia in 1929 and Myer was educated at Geelong Grammar School, where his strengths were in music, the arts, the classics and languages. His father died at an early age in 1934, when he was 13 years of age. He was accepted to Oxford University but could not attend due to the outbreak of World War II. He attended Princeton University for a year, then returned to Australia and served in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

He temporarily transferred from the RAN to the Royal Navy in mid-1943, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant, and he received a Distinguished Service Medal[dubious ][citation needed] for torpedoing a German submarine in the Adriatic Sea. On 15 August 1944, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his role in an attack by HMAS Arunta on the Japanese submarine Ro-33 Japanese submarine that had torpedoed a merchant ship, Malaita, outside Port Moresby.[4] Later he served in the occupation forces in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.[1]

In 1948 he became a Director of the Myer Emporium, a role he continued until 1985. He was Deputy chairman and managing director 1960–1966, Chairman 1966–1976, and a non-executive Director 1976–1985. He was also a Director of Coles Myer Ltd 1985–89.[2]

Together with his siblings, he brought the Sidney Myer Music Bowl into existence in 1959. Ken Myer donated it to the people of Victoria and Australia, and it was accepted on their behalf by the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.

He championed the introduction of freeways and shopping malls to Australia, and was instrumental in setting up the Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne.[3]

In 1972, he surprised and to a degree alienated his family by publicly supporting the Australian Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam during the federal election campaign. Labor won government in December 1972 and Whitlam became Prime Minister. In early 1974, Whitlam offered Ken Myer the opportunity of succeeding Sir Paul Hasluck as Governor-General. He declined, and the post went to Sir John Kerr.[1][5]

His other activities were extensive and varied. He was:

  • Honorary Secretary of the National Gallery Society of Victoria 1948–53 [1]
  • President of the Town and Country Planning Association of Victoria 1953–1958 [1]
  • a member of the Victorian Arts Centre Building Committee 1958–80, and chairman 1965–80 [1]
  • a member of the Interim Council of the National Library of Australia 1960 (at the personal invitation of the then Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies)[2]
  • a founding member of the statutory Council 1961[2]
  • Chairman of the Council 1974–82[2]
  • a member of the Australian Universities Commission 1962–65[2]
  • a member of the Committee of Economic Inquiry (the first Vernon Committee) 1963–65[2]
  • Chairman of the Victorian Arts Centre 1965–89[2]
  • a member of the founding Council of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies in 1967[1]
  • a member of the interim Council of the Australian National Gallery 1968–71[2]
  • a director of the National Retail Merchants Association of the USA 1969–79[1]
  • a member of the Australian National Capital Planning Committee 1971–82[2]
  • President of the Board of the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine 1971–92[2]
  • a member of Australia's first trade mission to China in 1973[2]
  • a member of the Committee, chaired by Sir John Crawford, whose unanimous report led to the Australia-Japan Foundation[2]
  • Chairman of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust from 1980 to 1989[1]
  • founding Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983–86.[2] This last was one of his few unsuccessful appointments, and it ended in his sudden resignation mid-term; it was widely seen as a reward by Bob Hawke for Myer's support for Gough Whitlam's election in 1972.[6]

He successfully fostered new research in organisations such as the Division of Plant Industry of the CSIRO and helped build the Oriental Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.[1] At his death in 1992, he was the greatest collector of Japanese art in Australia.[7]

Honours and awards[edit]

He won the International Retailers Award in 1970.[1]

On Australia Day 1976 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).[8][2][9]

In 1989 the Australian Libraries and Information Association gave him its Redmond Barry Award, which goes to a lay person not employed in a library who has rendered outstanding service to the promotion of a library and to the promotion of a library and the practice of librarianship.[2]

In April 1992 he was elected to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science, under the provision for special election of people who are not scientists but have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science.[1]

Kenneth Myer Lecture[edit]

The annual Kenneth Myer Lecture was founded by the Friends of the National Library of Australia in 1990. The inaugural lecturer was Gough Whitlam, and later Kenneth Myer Lecturers have included H. C. Coombs, Dr Davis McCaughey, Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney, Sir Gustav Nossal, Professor Peter C. Doherty, Fred Chaney, Professor Fiona Stanley, Harry Seidler, Tim Costello, Geoffrey Robertson, Michelle Grattan, Professor Tim Flannery, Professor Ian Frazer[10] and Kim Williams.

Personal life[edit]

In 1947, Myer married Prudence Boyd (1925–2005) and they had five children:[11] Joanna,[12] Michael, Philip, Martyn and Andrew. Ken and Prudence were divorced in 1977.[13] Ken married Yasuko Hiraoka in 1979[1] (16 March 1945 – 30 July 1992).

He and Yasuko were killed in a light aircraft crash in Alaska on 30 July 1992.[2]

Martyn Myer is president of the Myer Foundation.[14] Andrew Myer Is a property developer.[15] Andrew was a Trustee of The Sidney Myer Fund and for five years held the position of Director and Co-Vice-President of The Myer Foundation.[16] Joanna Baevsky is a psychologist, and she and Michael Myer were the creators of the 1988 film Radiance.[17]


Media offices
Preceded by
Leonie Kramer
Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission
Succeeded by
David Hill