May 15, 2024

Celebrating 10 years and beyond: Geoff Cumming reflects on his historic $100M gift to the Cumming School of Medicine a decade later

How Cumming’s investment strengthened UCalgary’s position as a global leader in health research
Geoff Cumming speaks at the June 2014 announcement of his $100 million gift to the University of Calgary's medical school.
Geoff Cumming speaks at the June 2014 announcement of his $100-million gift to the University of Calgary's medical school. University of Calgary files

It’s been 10 years since Geoff Cumming made a transformational $100-million gift to the University of Calgary, propelling the medical school onto the global map for health research excellence.  

For Cumming, Hon. LLD’16, a business leader and philanthropist who spent most of his adult life in Calgary, giving back to the university was a perfect fit.

“My father was a doctor, my mother was involved with a medical school … and I wanted to do something which I felt contributed to all of humanity,” says Cumming, who graduated first in his class with an honours degree in economics at UCalgary in 1974. “By the time I got to 60, I began to think about what my lasting contribution was.”

Cumming made the life-changing gift on June 17, 2014, which was matched by the Alberta government. It was the largest single philanthropic gift made to UCalgary and one of the largest ever to a Canadian university at the time. At the time of the announcement, he said he hoped his gift would help jump-start medical research.

“In the years and decades ahead, there will be lots of spinoffs out of this,” he said.

The Cumming School of Medicine’s research reputation around the world has since grown dramatically. Made up of seven research institutes, which are also celebrating milestone anniversaries since their founding, the CSM is now a global leader in many areas from stroke care to microbiome-based research.

“Although the work is done in Calgary, people around the world will be the beneficiaries. Looking back on it, I’m very pleased with the outcome of the gift, with the success we've made to date and I’m optimistic about the future,” says Cumming.

Cumming’s gift has helped UCalgary become the youngest institution ranked as a top research university in Canada.

Ed McCauley

Ed McCauley

“Geoff wished for his gift to UCalgary to ‘spur research breakthroughs’ in brain and mental health, inflammation and chronic diseases. I am extremely proud and grateful to say that his wish has come true. Our internationally acclaimed researchers are conducting groundbreaking medical research that would not have been possible without his extraordinary generosity,” says Dr. Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor of UCalgary.

It has also inspired other donors — both large and small — to give to the CSM. Since 2014, the community has contributed more than $852 million to advance health research and education at the CSM. 

“It does create great leverage and has pulled in lots of other donors. We’ve seen our research revenue grow dramatically as a result of this so the impact already in just 10 years has been amazing,” says Dr. Todd Anderson, MD'85, dean of the CSM and a cardiologist and scientist. 

Since 2014, the medical school has also attracted more than $1.55 billion in non-philanthropic research funding. 

Dr. Catherine Zahn, MD, PhD, OC, member of CSM International Strategic Advisory Committee, says the CSM stands out for its ability to innovate — something made possible by Cumming’s historic gift.

“There is nothing like the confidence that's inspired by a major philanthropic gift in the work that you're already doing to really accelerate the pace of change and place an organization on an upward trajectory,” says Zahn.

Recently, Cumming also supported the University of Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a global research centre focused on the prevention, treatment and cure of infectious diseases. That gift established the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics.

Delegates from both institutions have met to start working together, including this spring at a conference in Banff, Alta. The Doherty Institute's director, Professor Sharon Lewin, says it’s the beginning of a great partnership with UCalgary.

“There are many areas that both universities are really strong in, but the University of Calgary is incredibly strong in understanding the microbiome and its impact on human health. The microbiome may hold some secrets to new therapeutics,” says Lewin. 

In fact, some of Cumming’s gift to UCalgary was directed to recruiting some of its top microbiome researchers, growing capacity at its International Microbiome Centre — the world's largest in an academic setting. 

“Geoff’s giving is absolutely instrumental to this partnership; (without) it, it would’ve never happened,” Lewin adds. 

Groundbreaking research sparks healthier lives

The CSM’s seven health research institutes — the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Centre, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and the Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases — all include members from across the university. This transdisciplinary approach to research is directly benefiting patients not just in Calgary, but across Canada and around the world. 

In 2012, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute piloted minimally invasive cardiac surgery, which shortened recovery times and improved patient outcomes. That same year, orthopedics innovations by McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health researchers reduced wait times for hip and knee replacements. 

In 2015, researchers at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute led an international trial in clot removal therapy that revolutionized how stroke is treated around the world. The ESCAPE trial showed that by mechanically removing a clot within 90 minutes, patients with ischemic acute stroke recovered significantly faster and their likelihood of surviving increased by 50 per cent. They have since led several other stroke research studies that informed new protocols, which are helping patients live longer and better after stroke.

In 2017, the International Microbiome Centre — Canada’s largest — opened at the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and immediately attracted top international research talent. It’s well on its way to identifying and testing new microbial medicines to improve the health of patients living with chronic disease. 

In 2020, when the world was paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health rapidly launched research at one of North America’s largest single-location COVID-19 outbreak sites, to help prevent future outbreaks. O’Brien members also led an innovative program to engage communities in northeast Calgary to get vaccinated, leading to more than 94 per cent first-dose coverage — one of the highest rates for similar neighbourhoods in North America. 

In 2021, Charbonneau Cancer Institute researchers proved modified immune cells can treat solid tumours in the laboratory — a world first — and began testing the new therapy in patients two years later. 

Last year, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute received a $280-million investment, including the largest federal research grant in its history, for One Child Every Child — a research initiative to improve child health outcomes Canada-wide and internationally.

How stroke research at CSM changed 1 Calgary patient’s life 

The CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute has changed the lives of people with stroke around the world including Don Snider’s. On Nov. 3, 2022, the Calgary man experienced a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body from the neck down.

“It was like being stuck in quicksand,” says Snider. “There was a time I couldn’t even move a finger, couldn’t move my leg. I was numb. I couldn’t feel anything.”

As well as improving the way stroke is treated, the CSM is also a world leader in stroke rehabilitation. Thanks to research, Snider re-learned how to talk, stand and walk again in just one year. His treatment including walking on a split-belt treadmill that allowed for each of his legs to walk at a different speed with TV screens that simulated walking down a path. The virtual reality treadmill enhances stroke recovery by allowing for rehabilitation and recovery of a symmetrical gait.

“The therapists are incredible,” says Snider. “The analogy they gave me, was, ‘If you work downtown and you drive downtown on Macleod Trail everyday but there’s an accident on Macleod Trail, you can’t take that route downtown. But we can show you how to get to work. There are other roads to get downtown.’”

Now more than a year later, Snider is back living at home and continuing to make progress.

“The tools they give you allows you to overcome obstacles every day,” he says.

The next 10 years and beyond

Looking back on when he made his gift, Cumming remarks on how much has changed in a decade. In 2014, his children were small, and they are now about to go to university themselves. His mother, who was 92 years old at the time of the announcement, is now 102.

Geoff Cumming and his mother, Madeline (left) at the 2014 announcement of his gift.

Geoff Cumming and his mother, Madeleine, centre, at the 2014 announcement of his gift.

University of Calgary files

“She is a live wire. And so, for her this is very important. My father never experienced any of this but (my mother) always said he would be very proud of it. So, to me, it’s sort of coming full circle,” says Cumming.

A decade later, the Cumming School of Medicine has grown to become a health research centre of excellence. 

“The initial investment was in people and platforms — the International Microbiome Centre, the neuro-imaging technologies, the great people we’ve been able to attract and the research that’s coming out of that. It has enabled world-class clinical care advancements, through our collaboration with Alberta Health Services, it has also upped the game of all of the research institutes,” says Anderson.

Anderson says the CSM’s goal for the future is to lead.

“We want to be the medical school of choice for new learners, faculty and staff. If we attract and retain the best people, then amazing things will happen,” says Anderson.

Cumming believes the CSM will only continue to advance in the next 10 years and beyond.

“I think we're on the right path. It's a long journey — we need to go at a good pace, which shouldn't be a sprint, but it shouldn't be a walk. We need to be lean and we need to be as focused as possible. I would just say thank you very much to all the people involved,” he says. “It's a team effort, and in the end the results show that.”

In 2024, the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) at the University of Calgary is celebrating 10 years of shaping healthier lives sparked by philanthropy, thanks to Geoff Cumming’s historic $100-million gift. The medical school’s seven research institutes are marking up to three decades of national and international excellence, powered by the generosity of their founding families and support of CSM donors both large and small. Groundbreaking discoveries by each institute have directly benefited children, youth and adults in Calgary, across the country and around the world. Together, our community has helped propel UCalgary to its ranking as a top research university in Canada while strongly positioning the university on the global map for health research.


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