Woman Wilmot-Wright, Meriel Antoinette Winchester

Philanthropic administrator and University administrator

Written by Juliet Flesch, The University of Melbourne

Meriel Wilmot-Wright was born in Berwick, Victoria in 1921 the only child of Mitford Moore Winchester (1874-1949) and Beatrice Charlotte Wilmot, née King (1887-1982). Educated at various state schools, Ivanhoe Girls' Grammar School and Taylor's Coaching College, Melbourne, she was employed in a bank, before taking the position of Department Secretary in the Department of Physiology at the University of Melbourne, a position that combined the attributes of confidential secretary to the Professor and departmental administrator. She held this position from 1941 to 1953.

From 1954 to 1956, Wilmot-Wright was in London, working first as Research Officer, for the Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust, London, moving to the Nuffield Foundation in 1955. On her return to Melbourne she was appointed secretary to the Victorian College of Optometry, and over the next four years, oversaw its development to become the Department of Optometry in the University of Melbourne. In 1961 she became the foundation Executive Secretary of the Myer Foundation, a position she would occupy until 1982.

Wilmot-Wright was the first full-time research officer appointed by an Australian foundation. She transformed the Foundation and the nature and administration of philanthropy in Australia. Most notable was the introduction of the concept of seed funding, providing an initial grant and persuading others to continue support for particular projects, such as the Aborigines in Australian Society Project, subsequently continued by the Social Science Research Council. She had always been very internationally-minded and this was confirmed in 1961 by a study tour of US foundations, further enhanced by a month in 1976 spent working with several American foundations linked, as was Myer, with large retail corporations. It was undoubtedly this international focus which led to her being invited to the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy, Conference on International Philanthropy and the Humanities, as the Australian representative. In 1971, in China with Professor Roy Douglas Wright, whom she had married in 1964, as guests of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wilmot opened negotiations for a programme of student exchanges between the two countries.

As well as providing leadership in philanthropic administration and direction, Wilmot-Wright was a notable mentor to women such as Jill Reichstein of the Reichstein Foundation, whose own motto of 'Change Not Charity' echoes the practice and philosophy of Wilmot-Wright, and Jane Sandilands who, after being advised and supported by Wilmot-Wright in undertaking university studies, was set on her own professional path by being appointed as founding editor of Philanthropy the journal of what is now Philanthropy Australia.

Under Wilmot-Wright the Myer Foundation funded numerous initiatives that could not have begun without such pump-priming but flourished thereafter: a conference which resulted in the foundation in 1965 of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, grants for the establishment of an Australian office of Earthwatch and an establishment grant for the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University. It was a Myer Foundation grant in that enabled the study by Ronald Henderson and the Melbourne University Institute for Applied Economic Research of poverty in Australia, establishing the still-current 'Henderson line'. Another enabled Catherine Ellis's far-reaching research into Australian Aboriginal music.

The establishment in 1987 of Ross House, the only self managed and community owned non-profit building in Australia, which offers affordable and accessible office space to more than 50 small non-profit groups working towards environmental and social justice owed much to Wilmot-Wright's advocacy. Ross House came into being as the result of a very generous donation from the R.E. Ross Trust supplemented by support solicited by Wilmot-Wright from a number of trusts and foundations. Wilmot-Wright's highly effective leadership depended in part on a pretence that she was not leading at all, which, in dealing with the men of her time was perhaps the only way.

Published Resources


  • Liffman, Michael, A Tradition of Giving: seventy-five years of Myer family philanthropy, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004. Details
  • Lofthouse, Andrea, Who's Who of Australian Women, Methuen Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982. Details

Journal Articles

  • Sandilands, Jane, 'The Godmothers: interview with Pat Feilman and Meriel Wilmot', Australian Philanthropy, Interview Transcript, vol. 3, 1989, pp. 9 - 12. Details

Online Resources

See also