Chuck and Helga Feeney happy together in an undated photo

Former American billionaire Chuck Feeney honored by University of Queensland for multi-million-dollar donations

He’s the “eccentric” American former billionaire in his nineties who prefers flying economy over first class and has given away an $8 billion fortune, including more than $500 million to Australian causes.

Chuck Feeney spent a lifetime largely shunning the limelight but the 91-year-old’s generosity and contribution to research will be honored at the University of Queensland (UQ) today.

Mr Feeney, who lives frugally with his wife Helga in San Francisco, has helped fund some of Queensland’s leading research institutes through grants of more than $100 million to UQ.

But the philanthropist, who adopted a “giving while living” philosophy, has vehemently eschewed having buildings named after himself.

Queensland scientist Ian Frazer, the co-developer of the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine, described Mr Feeney as “somebody who saw that the best place to put his money was somewhere else rather than for himself”.

Philanthropist Chuck Feeney with AIBN Professor Julie Campbell in Queensland in 2007.(Supplied: University of Queensland)

“He certainly didn’t want to have his name on a building and he didn’t even want to be recognized publicly when buildings were opened.

“He was very quiet and self-effacing. He didn’t want to be the big guy in town.”

Feeney Way at University of Queensland named after philanthropist Chuck Feeney in July 2022
Feeney Way at University of Queensland was named after the philanthropist.(Supplied: UQ)

But UQ will honor his significant contribution to Queensland research today by naming the walkway in front of its historic sandstone Michie and Forgan Smith buildings, Feeney Way.

Mr Feeney, who co-founded airport retailer Duty Free Shoppers in 1960, amassing a significant fortune is unable to attend the tribute in person but will watch via video link from the US.

Through his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, which was closed in 2020, he helped fund UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the UQ Center for Clinical Research and the Queensland Brain Institute.

QBI building on Feeney Way, named after philanthropist Chuck Feeney, at University of Queensland
Mr Feeney helped fund the Queensland Brain Institute.(Supplied: AIBN)

He also contributed to Brisbane’s Translational Research Institute, a partnership between UQ, the Queensland University of Technology, Princess Alexandra Hospital and Mater Research.

The research infrastructure Mr Feeney helped fund is credited with attracting some of the world’s best scientists into Queensland.

“His funding enabled a significant amount of progress to be made in biomedical research across a whole range of areas from brain cancer to vaccines,” Professor Frazer said.

‘He was like a Godsend’

Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie said Mr Feeney gave his government’s Smart State vision credibility.

“There wasn’t a lot of support for Smart State when we started, either within the Labor Party or within the community,” Mr Beattie said.

“He was pivotal, not just in terms of money, but of perception. We got on like a house on fire. I liked him and I knew what he was on about. We were looking for partners and he was like a Godsend.”

Mr Beattie said Mr Feeney wanted to “make a difference and improve life expectancy” by investing in medical science.

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