The Baders

Search Our Site

Login using your BISC username and password.

Queen's University


The Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle is a legacy made possible by the generosity of one of Queen’s University’s alumni, Dr. Alfred Bader, and his wife Dr Isabel Bader.

As a Jewish teenager escaping the Nazis, Dr. Alfred Bader fled to England in 1938, from where he was sent to an internment camp near Montreal, Quebec. There, the young Austrian native continued his studies and, once released, applied to several well-known Canadian universities. Queen’s was the only one to offer him admission. “I was determined to do my best,” he later wrote. “Two years in the camp, education without distraction, followed by four years at Queen’s, was a great beginning for a successful life.”

After receiving undergraduate degrees in Engineering Chemistry and History, and a Masters degree in Chemistry at Queen’s, Dr. Bader went on to graduate studies at Harvard, formed his own international chemical company, and became a world-renowned philanthropist and art collector. Among his many gifts to Queen’s was Herstmonceux Castle.

The vision which underlies the Bader International Study Centre reflects the Baders’ commitment to offering students a challenging global education infused with social justice, a thirst for knowledge, and civic responsibility.

Read more about the lives of Drs. Alfred and Isabel Bader and their involvement at Queen's University in the Queen’s Encyclopedia.


Dr Alfred Bader's grandfather, Moritz Ritter von Bader, was a civil engineer who helped Ferdinand de Lesseps build the Suez Canal.  His mother was the daughter of a Hungarian count.  In his early teens he became a prisoner of war, interned in Canada as a potential Nazi “fifth columnist,” although he was a Jew who lost his mother by adoption in the Holocaust.  Such is the background that helped to shape the fascinating personality of Alfred Bader, Queen’s University’s most generous benefactor.
Philanthropists are generally a happy breed, but Alfred Bader and his wife Isabel are uniquely so.  Their giving, like their life in general, is reflective of their sense of the wonder, magic and joyful ‘accidents’ of existence.  Dr. Bader rejoices in the two worlds of chemistry and fine art.  Appropriately, the cover of his autobiography, Adventures of a Chemist Collector, features a Flemish painting of 1648 titled The Alchemist.
Over the years, the Baders have sought out deserving chemists and universities throughout North America, Europe and Israel and have underwritten their research through grants and fellowships.  At Queen’s, Alfred’s alma mater, they have contributed to academic excellence through Chairs in Art History and Chemistry, fellowships, scholarships, prizes and bursaries in many fields.

Alfred meets Isabel

In 1949, travelling on the SS Franconia from Quebec City to Liverpool, England, Alfred met Isabel Overton, the daughter of a deeply religious Protestant family in Northern Ontario and a graduate of Victoria University in Toronto.

“How all the fellows at the university could have overlooked a woman of such inner and outer beauty, such goodness and intelligence was beyond my understanding,” he later wrote.  After the voyage, Alfred and Isabel spent many hours in London together and were enchanted with each other; after nine days Alfred proposed marriage.

“During those nine days I thought of only two problems, one important, one trivial,” he recalls, tongue-in-cheek.  “How to bridge our differences in religion was the major issue.  The minor one was whether our greatly different eating speeds would make life difficult, for I eat quickly and Isabel eats very slowly; indeed, she takes at least 20 minutes longer over a meal than I do.  An hour a day is 365 hours a year…..if we lived together for 30 years, I would spend an additional 456 days - well over a year - just eating.  I concluded that Isabel was worth it.”

Isabel eventually rejected him in 1950; she did not believe the mixture of religions would work.  Her book, A Canadian in Love, is based on the 80 letters she wrote to Alfred between their meeting in July 1949 and their sad parting a year later.  In 1952 Alfred married another woman, Helen Daniels (The “Danny” of his autobiography), with whom he had two sons, Daniel (now a Queen’s Trustee) and David.  In 1981, Danny divorced Alfred so that he could marry Isabel, his first love.

When she was “rediscovered” by Alfred in England in 1975, Isabel had been teaching since 1949 at Bexhill in Sussex (close to the site of Herstmonceux Castle) and was co-founder of a drama school there and later a costume museum.  She loves gardening, music and the theatre, is an expert on costumes, and accompanies Alfred on his European lecture tours and visits with chemists.  Like him, she is very interested in the Bible, old master paintings, and “investing” in research and scholarship.  Wherever they are, they both attend synagogue faithfully.

The Aldrich Chemical Company

Clearly, they have millions to share and “invest”.  As noted in Roseann Runte’s introduction to Isabel’s book, Alfred was newly graduated from Harvard when he started a chemical company virtually from nothing.  A Milwaukee attorney was his partner.  Alfred’s “astute perception of market needs and his hard work at meeting these, his ability to find new and inexpensive ways to produce chemicals and to supply chemists around the (postwar) world, helped him build one of the most important chemical companies in North America.”

Each partner had invested $250.  From a small operation in a garage, Aldrich Chemicals (named for the attorney’s fiancée) grew rapidly, moving to bigger and bigger premises as the company became world-famous for the quality and variety of its chemicals. When the American Chemical Society honoured Dr. Bader with its top award for outstanding public service, C&E News described him as a “fascinating mixture of ego, modesty and almost boundless energy.”

“Me modest?  What next?”  Alfred wrote, adding modestly that the award was “really largely for Aldrich and what it has done to revolutionize chemical research.”  Aldrich resisted buyout offers and in 1975 merged with Sigma of St. Louis, a leading supplier of biochemicals.  Alfred became president of the merged company, Sigma-Aldrich.

He admits he tends to be “a bit of a Spitzbub…streetwise, educated in the jungle of Vienna during the Depression.  I enjoy a fight, and Marvin (colleague Marvin Klitsner) kept Aldrich and me out of many lawsuits.”  Accepting an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Queen’s in 1985, Dr. Bader revealed he had “sometimes secretly wished that I were a lawyer, and my good friends know how I have always enjoyed a fight when I knew - or thought I knew - that I was right.”

In 1991 there came a fight he couldn’t win.  He and Marvin Klitsner were forced out of Sigma-Aldrich for allegedly “betting against the company” by selling stock options, an accusation he strongly denied.  (see his chapter “My Expulsion”.  Alfred’s covered call option was sold for a gift to Queen’s!)  There was shock and sadness in the chemical industry, where Alfred Bader was widely appreciated.  Dr. Dudley Williams of Cambridge University wrote in the journal Chemistry in Britain:  “His benefactions to chemistry have been often crucial in helping those who are not the most privileged members of the community.”  On another level, through Dr. Bader’s personal efforts nearly 40,000 rare chemicals were collected from researchers around the world and quickly made available at nominal costs through the ABC Library of Rare Chemicals.

In his own Letter to Chemists in April 1992, Dr. Bader gave details of the company ‘coup’ and wrote, “Many of you know me as the chemist collector who finds paintings for Aldrich’s catalogue and Aldrichimica Acta covers.  Some of you know the ABC’s of my life - art, Bible and chemistry and the Alfred Bader Chemical Collection.  Many of you know me as the chemist who has visited your laboratory with Isabel, his wife, and asked: ‘What can we do better?’ And surely you know that we meant it.  I would be happy to continue to respond on a personal basis to any calls for help and advice you may care to make.”  To this offer he appended his home number.  The calls are still coming.

A Passion for Art

Leaving the company meant more time for art dealing activities.  He moved Alfred Bader Fine Arts (a company he had established in 1961) into Milwaukee’s historic Astor Hotel.  With Isabel a close collaborator, Dr. Bader now spends about a third of his time dealing in paintings, a third writing and lecturing, a third “trying to help chemists.”

Although he is well know to international art auction houses, he takes particular pleasure in buying dirty old paintings in antique stores or at auctions and flea markets, hoping that cleaning will reveal great works.  His special skill is in distinguishing work by Rembrandt’s students from that of the master himself.  Slide-illustrated tales of such detective work have held gallery audiences spellbound for years.

Another of his joys in art derives from his relationship with galleries at both of his alma maters.  His close connection with Queen’s began in 1967 when Frances Smith, then curator of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, asked him whether he would consider donating a painting to the fledgling gallery.

“I was pleased to be asked,” he recalls, “and felt that Queen’s would be a good home for the Salvator Mundi that had belonged to my grandfather.  An early 16th century Italian painting, it did not really fit into my own collection, and from then on Queen’s became the home of choice for beautiful paintings which I could not pass up, but knew were not really for me.”  He has since given many fine Baroque works to Queen’s, Harvard and other university galleries.

Despite their wealth, the Baders live modestly in Milwaukee.  Alfred’s favourite painting in his house is a large biblical scene titled Joseph and the Baker, at one time attributed to Rembrandt.  This painting and another Dutch biblical scene, Angel Appearing to Hagar, seem to embody the things in life that Alfred holds dear:  God, good works and help of the underdog.  Some of the Bader collection of 17th century Dutch masters, focusing on the School of Rembrandt, is now housed in the recently enlarged Agnes - the largest private gift of art ever to a Canadian institution.

Thanks to the Bader gifts, to a PhD program in Art History, the extension of the Queen’s gallery, an exceptional department of art conservation and a strong Canadiana collection, Queen’s can now claim the best art history program in Canada.

As Philanthropists

The Baders’ generosity, however, ranges well beyond their interests in chemistry and art.  In recent years they have contributed $500,000 (US) towards a Queen’s humanitarian aid project for disabled war victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and have made a $6,000,000 grant to Isabel’s alma mater, Victoria University, for a new theatre named after her and formally opened in March 2001.

The devoted couple delights in using their wealth to help people.  Roseann Runte, then the President of Victoria University, writes that “throughout his life, (Alfred) has consistently attempted to demonstrate his love for others, his ability to adopt new lands, new cultures, to fashion families of friends whether in camp or college.”

A self-made millionaire, Alfred Bader is a survivor, an astute businessman, a connoisseur and a scholar.  It’s fitting that it was the Baders - unconventional, sometimes quirky benefactors with a love of the past - who were responsible for Queen’s acquisition of the 140 room, 15th century Herstmonceux Castle in England.  The castle has been renovated (also with generous support from the Baders) and is now the unique and much admired International Study Centre they envisioned when they first offered Herstmonceux to Queen’s Principal David Smith.

With typical modesty, Alfred Bader wrote in 1993:  “Whenever I have contemplated any achievement in my life, I have marvelled how many and how diverse are the people who have made it possible, and where Herstmonceux is concerned, there were so many.”

“The one serious problem posed by such a gift,” he continued, “is the challenge: what can we do for an encore?  But with Isabel’s vision, and if the Lord gives us time, we will find other great things to do with our money, which we neither want to use for ourselves nor can take with us.”
Bader International Study Centre
Herstmonceux Castle
Hailsham, East Sussex
United Kingdom, BN27 1RN
Phone: +44 1323 834444
Fax: +44 1323 834499
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Undergraduate Admission and Recruitment
Gordon Hall, 74 Union Street
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
Canada, K7L 3N6
Phone: (613) 533-2218
Fax: (613) 533-6810
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Follow the BISC on Facebook   Follow the BISC on Instagram   Follow the BISC on Twitter