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Our history

From past milestones to healthier horizons, we trace the evolution of one of Australia's premier medical research institutes.

Pioneering scientific breakthroughs since the 1960s

Founded in 1963, the Garvan Institute of Medical Research brings together world-leading researchers and clinicians in a collaborative ecosystem with one clear mission: to harness all the information encoded in the genome to better diagnose, predict, treat and prevent diseases that have the deepest impact on society. Nestled alongside St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and affiliated with both the hospital and UNSW Sydney, Garvan is perfectly situated to catalyse research from fundamental discovery to transformational impact.

Garvan began its existence as a small research department of St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst, Sydney. The Sisters of Charity, who founded the hospital in 1857, used funds raised from their Centenary Appeal to establish the Institute. One of the primary donors to the appeal was Mrs Helen Mills, who contributed £100,000. She requested that the Institute be named after her late father, James Patrick Garvan (1843–1896), a distinguished NSW parliamentarian and business leader.

Construction of the original Garvan building began in January 1962 and the Institute was officially opened on 17 February 1963. There were three Co-Directors during the first years: Les Lazarus, John Hickie and Gerald Milton.

Gillian Henson (left) and Margaret Stuart working in Garvan’s first laboratory, 1964.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the expansion of scientific staff at Garvan, including the arrival of a critical mass of key senior researchers, many of whom are now recognised as groundbreakers in their field. Les Lazarus became the sole Director in 1969 and continued to lead the Institute for the next 20 years.

The Garvan Research Foundation was established on 1 January 1981, with the aim of supporting, assisting and promoting scientific and medical research within the Institute. In its first year, it raised $110,000 – a significant sum for the time.

In 1982, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) awarded Garvan its first Program Grant for research into diabetes, while in May 1983 the Council of the University of New South Wales approved the affiliation of the Institute with the University, which continues to this day.

The New South Wales Parliament passed the Garvan Institute of Medical Research Act in 1984, incorporating Garvan as an autonomous, non-profit research institute. In 1986, the Institute became one of only five ‘centres of research excellence’ in Australia to receive NHMRC block funding. That, along with subsequent infrastructure funding from the NSW Government, allowed Garvan to expand into a leading-edge research facility.

In 1990, Professor John Shine was appointed Executive Director and led the Institute into the molecular biology era. In the decade that followed, NHMRC funding and increased public financial support through the Garvan Research Foundation allowed the Institute to increase dramatically in size.

In 1994, a large infrastructure grant from the NSW Government allowed the Institute to build the world-class research facility it is currently housed in, on its original site in Darlinghurst. The new building was opened on 7 April 1997, by Prime Minister John Howard and New South Wales Premier Bob Carr.

In 2000, the launch of the first draft of the human genome led to huge sequence databases and gene arrays, removing the need for painstaking testing of individual gene activity. Gene chips allowed researchers to look at 40,000 genes at once, to determine how gene expression is changed in disease. Garvan embraced this new research model quickly and, in a similar way, embraced the developments in proteomics and epigenetics that followed. To support these exciting new technologies, Garvan gained expertise in bioinformatics, to analyse and interpret the huge datasets that resulted from genome sequencing.

These breakthrough technologies brought with them a new and exciting possibility: precision medicine tailored to treat patients with disease based on their DNA. In 2012, Garvan and St Vincent's Hospital opened The Kinghorn Cancer Centre. This state-of-the-art translational cancer research centre was designed to deliver this promise of personalised medicine and extend Garvan's basic cancer research to address clinical challenges more directly. Professor John Mattick was appointed Executive Director in 2012 and drove the application of Next Generation Sequencing, to diagnose disease and personalised treatments based on genomic information.

Since then, Garvan has continued to be at the forefront of advances in medical research. Led by Executive Director Professor Chris Goodnow (2018–2022), it has contributed to the increasingly rapid and affordable genome sequencing and the growing application of personalised medicine. Now, thanks to our world-class researchers, our specialist support teams and the generosity of the community, a future where we can stop disease before it starts is within reach.

Prof Benjamin Kile, an internationally recognised and highly regarded blood cell molecular biologist, was appointed Executive Director in early 2023. Prof Kile has an extensive background in academic and research leadership. His research career has focused on the molecular regulation of blood cell formation and function, with a particular interest in the impact of targeted cancer therapies on cellular survival. 

The Garvan Institute continues to be at the forefront of advances in medical research, contributing to the increasingly rapid and affordable genome sequencing and the associated promise of 'personalised medicine' – both of which are set to revolutionise medicine over the next 50 years.