NOEL CROUCHER arrived in Hong Kong in 1905 with nothing, not even an education. He was just 14 years old at the time. But the name of the man who once said much later in his life 'don't sit me next to those brainy people - I wouldn't know what to say' lives on in the highest academic circles. Croucher's life may have started humbly, but by the time he died in 1980 he had amassed a fortune - more than GBP20 million ($231 million) - far more than even he was aware of. Unusually for a British colonialist, Croucher, who rose from office boy for leading businessman Sir Paul Chater to the first chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, left his money where he wheeled and dealed so successfully, here in Hong Kong. Moreover, he bequeathed it to a worthy cause, of encouraging excellence in science, medicine and technology. The Croucher Foundation, set up in 1979, has set the pace for the development of scientific research for the last quarter century, nurturing a whole generation of young scientists. Every Hong Kong scientist knows of its work, and many have directly benefited from the $600 million it has already spent. There is also huge prestige now attached to the name. To be awarded a Croucher Senior Research Fellowship is the closest local equivalent to winning a Nobel Prize, and widely acclaimed internationally. This week its profile was raised further. The foundation marked its silver jubilee by awarding $1 million to each of the eight publicly-funded tertiary institutions which are in turn naming a laboratory after the philanthropist. The 25th anniversary celebrations culminated last night in a banquet at Government House, attended by leading educators along with Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, and University Grants Committee chairwoman Dr Alice Lam Kiu-yue, who is also a trustee. Ian MacCallum, Croucher's lawyer, was among the trustees based overseas who returned to Hong Kong this week. He recalled the day when, after much prevaricating, Croucher signed on the dotted line to create the foundation. 'I went home and said to my wife that night, this was the best day's work I had ever done and I still feel that. I am thrilled we have done so much over the last 25 years,' he said. The foundation was the outcome of a fortuitous meeting, arranged by Lady Ride, wife of former University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Sir Lindsay Ride, between Croucher and Lord Alexander Todd. Lord Todd, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, had chaired the powerful Nuffield Foundation set up by the Oxford-based carmaker William Nuffield for the 'advancement of health and social well-being'. Croucher, who had been desperately concerned that his money should have lasting benefit for the local community, put his mind at ease when he saw that Lord Todd could run his foundation on similar lines. Mr MacCallum reflected on the man of many contradictions and mysteries. He was so generous in death yet his lawyer believes he died of his characteristic meanness. He awoke unwell and, setting out for his doctor, decided to walk the mile to the nearest bus stop, in the pouring rain, rather than use a car. He dropped dead when he reached the surgery. As his biographer, journalist Vaudine England, recalls in The Croucher Foundation, The First 25 Years, he was extraordinarily tight with money but always concerned about the welfare of the poor. He would return his daily newspaper to its vendor, so it could be resold. He may have been 'the richest white man east of Suez' by 1945 - the Japanese failed to prize open his safe while he was interned in Stanley. But in the snobbish colonial era his humble background and lack of education meant he never fitted in with the social elite. 'He was a bit of an odd man out in the Hong Kong scene,' remembered Mr MacCallum, who worked in Hong Kong from 1955 to 1994 and knew Croucher since their sailing days. 'He was in many ways a very mean character. He didn't like spending money but he quietly and anonymously gave a lot away to charities and needy students.' The silver jubilee has been an occasion to remember Croucher and look back at his foundation's achievements. 'We were the first people to start doing research grants,' said Mr MacCallum. It was only a decade later that the government, much criticised by Lord Todd for funding the building of universities but not the lifeblood of research, set up the Research Grants Council (RGC) to take over this role. 'Every university now has its Croucher scholars and fellows. One of these days the Hong Kong academic profession will be run entirely by Croucher alumni,' Mr MacCallum quipped. Already many senior professors have been given crucial leg-ups in their careers as a result of receiving a Croucher scholarship or fellowship - it hands out about $40 million to $50 million a year. Apart from the senior fellowships, these are usually for study abroad, so young scientists can widen their horizons. It also provides funds to universities to help students here who fall on hard times and would otherwise not be able to finish their studies. 'It was part of our founder's creed to help needy students,' said Mr MacCallum, urging universities to make greater use of this funding. The foundation's success lies in it rigour and independence, as set by Lord Todd. 'We were very lucky with Alec. He was a very tough character. He said at the beginning we are here to support excellence. That has been our credo ever since,' said Mr MacCallum. Also important has been its flexibility. It pioneers initiatives, like its original funding for research, but is ready to move on when that need is provided by larger agencies, in particular government. Today, the RGC rather than the Croucher Foundation is the prime funding body for research. 'We like to be the pace-setter, developing good ideas that hopefully the government will pick up and run with. We can then do something else,' said Mr MacCallum. The senior research fellowships, which enable scientists to focus soley on a high-level research project by funding others to take on their administrative and teaching duties, were introduced in the early 1990s. The Advanced Study Institute, started about five years ago and which brings together leading scientists in a field for a week of brainstorming, is another of the more recent initiatives. It funds about five of these a year. The foundation has also branched out into supporting science education at school level, by funding the British Council's Science Alive programme. Professor Kan Yuet-wai, the current Croucher chairman, said it could give more help to the secondary arena, if an organisation such as the Hong Kong Institute of Education came up with a great idea. Other one-off projects it has supported include the key seed money, to the tune of $10 million, needed for Open University of Hong Kong's electronic library. 'It gets thousands of hits a month, most between 10pm and 2am. It has been a tremendous boon for OUHK,' said Professor Kan. The foundation does not like to set priorities, so it can respond to new ideas. But Professor Kan ruled out extending support to social sciences and humanities, because the needs in science, technology and medicine would always remain so great. Besides, Croucher had a particular dislike for the social sciences. Professor Kan, a leading hematologist who left Hong Kong for California in 1960, said that there had been a marked improvement in the standard of science here since he became a Croucher trustee in 1991, largely due to the creation of the RGC. There was enough going on to entice scientists trained abroad to return to Hong Kong. But the territory still lagged behind Singapore in the proportion of gross domestic product invested in research. 'I am sure if we put more effort in we could do a lot better,' he said. Hong Kong had the strategic advantage over Singapore, with its links in the mainland, he added. Although the foundation's remit is to support Hong Kong's scientists, it is furthering those links by funding joint laboratories run by local and mainland universities so they can benefit from the talent across the border. Croucher attended only one meeting of his foundation, now headquartered where he had his dishevelled office with its threadbare furniture in Nine Queen's Road Central. But Mr MacCallum is confident that he would approve of how his money has been used. 'He would look at the office and say we had spent too much money on the decoration,' he said. 'But if he looked at the number of scientists helped in their careers he would be very pleased.'