Life Lessons From a Visionary Medical Philanthropist

On the 10-year anniversary of his transformative gift to UCalgary, Geoff Cumming shines a light on the people and places that have moved him to spark change.

Written by Jacquie Moore, BA‘97

When University of Calgary alum, advisor and business leader Geoff Cumming reflects on some of the experiences and relationships; adventures and missteps; and travels and triumphs that have shaped his life so far, he sees a road paved with a little luck and a lot of love.

This road includes his remarkable decision to make a $100-million gift towards medical research at UCalgary, changing the face of the university forever.

June marks the 10-year anniversary of his gift and the establishment of the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). That’s a decade of extraordinary medical advancements that have helped put Calgary on the global health-care map. Geoff’s unparalleled generosity has fuelled groundbreaking medical research in countless areas including stroke, chronic disease and the microbiome, and empowered CSM to attract internationally acclaimed faculty.

So, how does the man behind one of the single largest gifts to a Canadian university explain the drive and inspiration behind his personal vision and generosity? Well, first he humbly tries to shift the conversation away from such questions and toward medical research. Then, he speaks about his family and why he takes a long view of a world he firmly believes can be better. Here are some insights into how Geoff Cumming, BA’74, Hon. LLD’16, became one of Canada’s most visionary health-care philanthropists.

Take the Middle Bedroom

Growing up in Kingston, Ont., as the second-youngest of five children put Geoff in an interesting spot in his childhood home — literally.

“My parents’ room was on the main floor and, upstairs, my brothers were on one side of the house and my two sisters were on the other,” he says.

Geoff’s bedroom, which had a window looking into the kids’ rec room, was on its own in the middle. While that might seem insignificant to his story, that unique space provided Geoff with positive formative experiences. “I played alone a lot and I read widely,” says Geoff. “My parents really encouraged time on my own and it helped me develop confidence and independent thinking.”

Hold Out for Fabulous Happiness

“Not everyone has a loving family growing up, but I did,” recalls Geoff. “My parents were very intelligent (his mother continues to be a bright spark at the age of 102) and always loving and encouraging.”

His father, who was a doctor and professor of medicine at Queens University, lived through the Depression and Second World War. “My dad knew how important family is — I learned that from him,” says Geoff; that, he adds with a smile, was both a great blessing and a curse. “My family life was so loving that I always said I wouldn’t get married until I had as much love as my parents had.” His patience paid off: at 62, Geoff became a “fabulously happy” husband and stepfather. “Family really rounds you out.”

Philanthropist and international businessman Geoff Cumming, BA’74, Hon. LLD’16, gave an historic gift of $100M to the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine in 2014.

Climb Every Mountain
From Russia to Banff and many peaks in between, climbing has been a big part of Geoff’s life. The physical challenge of mountain climbing appealed to him from a young age and the existential benefits haven’t gone unnoticed.

“Climbing did a lot of things for me,” he says. “It taught me determination and perseverance. It was often tough, and I’d want to turn around, but I’d keep going. Those experiences created resilience in me and taught me to take care of myself in difficult situations.” Most people, Geoff believes, “are capable of far more in life than we think we are. Climbing allowed me to push myself beyond what I thought I could do.”

Take a Friend
As an undergrad at UCalgary, Geoff had a roommate from New Zealand who challenged him to do a solo winter climb during spring break. He gamely set out to summit a peak in Banff and got caught in a storm.

“I didn’t have a tent and had to dig a snow cave to sleep in,” Geoff says. “Then I fell headfirst into the river and had to cut my boots off to get out.” Soaked and miles from anywhere, Geoff survived unscathed — save for the humbling realization that he wasn’t invincible. “It was a scary, silly thing to do, and I learned to be more careful.”

Geoff also became a believer in the power of others to push, protect and inspire. An avid cyclist as well, he thrives riding in a peloton. “We don’t do as well or go as far on our own,” he says.

Geoff Cumming tours the medical research facilities at the Cumming School of Medicine in 2014.

Start at Home
Decades into a diverse, global career in international economics, energy and investment, Geoff began to think about what his lasting contribution to the world could be.

“I spent the first part of my life accumulating and, from the time I turned 60, I began to think about what my lasting positive contribution to the world would be,” he says.

Though he’s lived in many places around the world and currently resides between New Zealand, Vancouver and Calgary, Geoff decided that, for him, meaningful philanthropy meant supporting excellence in Alberta. “I spent most of my adult life in Calgary, and I had been a beneficiary of living in Alberta for a long time,” he says. “I wanted to give back to Alberta — but I wanted to do it in such a way that it would benefit all of humanity.”

Look Way, Way Down the Road
A paragon of patience, Geoff is a serious long-term planner (a spontaneous night spent in the snow will do that to a person).

“I tend to look way ahead — not five years at a time, but a decade or two,” he says. As he dug into typical models of funding in medical science and research, Geoff saw an opportunity to do something different in Calgary. “Institutions would get funding for six months or a year,” he says. “But, like most things in life, great results aren’t achieved in that amount of time — that takes years. We have to plan for that and strategize investment for long-term success.”

Over the past 10 years, with the microbiome and neuroscience at the frontier of modern medical scientific breakthroughs, the CSM has made enormous strides in identifying and treating many diseases, including advancing our understanding of the microbiome’s role in helping the body heal itself and prevent disease, new therapeutics for attacking cancerous tumours and addressing neurological and psychiatric conditions; and stroke-related clot-busting treatment that is saving lives around the world.

“Thirty years ago, people didn’t want to talk about cancer, and 10 years ago, the relationship between the gut and the brain wasn’t widely known,” says Geoff. “These things take time, but we are advancing at a steady pace.”

The extraordinarily proud UCalgary alum says “Ultimately, they’ll create an ecosystem around the medical school where you have companies that are being founded, creating lots of medical products and advances. So, I think that’s all very healthy for the university. It is a very entrepreneurial university and I think that’s part of that ecosystem as well.”

Stay Curious

If family is Geoff’s north star, curiosity is a steady, abiding light that has illuminated many of his adventures and passions. Right now, he’s interested in innovative research around aging in place and retirement villages.

“Every decade, people live 1.9 years longer on average. That’s because medical science has continued to make so many advances,” Geoff says.

Infinitely curious of novel innovation, fearless exploration and cutting-edge medical specialization, Geoff is pleased to be engaged in one of the greatest adventures of his dynamic life as he witnesses and supports new treatments that are transforming how we live with chronic disease and other illnesses.

“We want to live in a healthy society, and one of the ways you can achieve that is to have a high-quality school of medicine that needs to be a balanced school of medicine with great teaching, great clinical work and great research,” he says.

Thanks in large part to Geoff’s optimism, patience, spirit of adventure and courageous mind, the CSM is moving into its second decade in an extraordinarily strong position to transform global health.

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 $100M 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 benefitted 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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