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Geoffrey Cumming (L) helps postdoctoral scholar Fenglian Xu at a research lab in Calgary, Alberta, June 16, 2014. Geoffrey Cumming's $100-million gift to medical research is the largest single philanthropic gift in the history of the University of Calgary.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The University of Calgary will receive $100-million – one of the largest philanthropic gifts ever given to a Canadian university – from a Calgary businessman who wants the money to spur breakthroughs in the fields of brain and mental health, as well as infections, inflammation and chronic diseases.

Investor, economist and university alumnus Geoffrey Cumming made the announcement Tuesday with Alberta Premier Dave Hancock and university president Elizabeth Cannon. The province will match the donation and the combined $200-million investment will establish the Cumming Medical Research Fund. The Faculty of Medicine will also be re-named the Cumming School of Medicine.

The donation, the largest in the university's history, will fund research that seeks to unlock mysteries of the brain, including the study of depression and dementia, as well as a range of chronic diseases. But it's also a tribute to Mr. Cumming's late father Harold (Hal), a Kingston, Ont. physician who mentored medical students at Queen's University, as well as Mr. Cumming's mother Madeleine, who sat on the medical admissions committee at Queen's and attended Tuesday's announcement.

"I've been very lucky in life. I was born into a great country – it's balanced and stable and safe – and I was born into a fantastic family," he said in an interview with the Globe.

"I wanted to do it to thank my parents. I wanted to make a gesture from the bottom of my heart that said 'this is important, thank you.' And they had both been involved in medicine," Mr. Cumming said.

" They always said life should have high purpose."

Although Calgary is Mr. Cumming's base and he has held senior positions at Gardiner Oil and Gas Ltd. and Western Oil Sands Inc., the usually private and low-key businessman doesn't describe himself as an oil man.

From Ontario he moved west as a young man, to be near the mountains and pursue his love of climbing. After graduating first in his class in honours economics at the University of Calgary in 1974, he pursued a master's degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked for the Alberta government during the tenure of former premier Peter Lougheed, followed by stints at Royal Bank of Canada and Peters & Co. Ltd. He served as vice-chairman and chief executive of Toronto-based Gardiner Group Capital Ltd., a private holding company founded by George Ryerson Gardiner, the Bay Street pioneer and financier who died in 1997. Following a childhood dream of living in New Zealand, Mr. Cumming pulled up stakes in Calgary at age 40 to move to Auckland to set up Emerald Capital Ltd.

Now a citizen of both New Zealand and Canada, Mr. Cumming's base has been in Calgary for several years. He has sat on numerous boards and said his diverse business interests span the globe. He's chairman and chief executive of Karori Capital Ltd., a private international investment firm, and has investments in oil, health care and retirement villages, hospitals, hotels and real estate. "Now I just try to work with people I admire and like, and do things I like to do."

He's a big believer in lean, effective governments and strong public institutions, and wants to help in the push to ease societal inequality. He considers himself a "citizen of the world," and – inspired by the philanthropy of Mr. Gardiner and Bill Gates – said he hopes to set his own example by looking at the big picture in Calgary.

Mr. Cumming wants to attract the best researchers to the university, with the promise that his money will help them spend less time writing grant application proposals and more time doing the research work that changes the world. "The really great things take a long time."

Mr. Cumming's gift rivals some of the largest-ever contributions to Canadian universities, including the $105-million donation by Michael DeGroote, former CEO of Laidlaw Transport Ltd., to McMaster University's medical school in 2003.

Dr. Cannon said Tuesday's gift, the largest single donation ever given to an Alberta post-secondary institution, will build on areas that are already strengths for the university and help attract the best people.

"At the end of the day, you're trying to bring world-class talent to the University of Calgary, who in turn bring other talent, younger talent, and great students," she said.

Dr. Cannon added that Calgary will become Western Canada's first faculty of medicine to be named after a donor. "We're thrilled. Geoff Cumming is a wonderful person."

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