Building global resilience: The motivation behind Australia’s largest medical gift

Mr Geoff Cumming is the inaugural major donor whose gift of $250 million will establish the new Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics within the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (the Doherty Institute) – a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

From left to right - Mr Geoff Cumming and his wife Anna Cumming, ViceChancellor Professor Duncan Maskell, Director of the Doherty Institute Professor Sharon Lewin AO and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor James McCluskey AO.

From left to right - Mr Geoff Cumming and his wife Anna Cumming, Vice Chancellor Professor Duncan Maskell, Director of the Doherty Institute Professor Sharon Lewin AO and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor James McCluskey AO.

Born into a medical family in Canada, Geoff pursued a career in business and economics and has been a director of over 30 companies in Canada, New Zealand and several other countries. He has supported many international charitable organisations involved with public health, sanitation, the environment, global over-population and other critical world issues.

Today, Geoff lives in Melbourne. His gift to the Doherty Institute is the largest philanthropic donation ever made to Australian medical research. It will enable rapid design and development of treatments for pathogens of pandemic potential and advance the science behind antiviral therapeutics, transforming the management of future pandemics and saving lives.

Here, Geoff shares his motivations for giving to medical research and improving humanity.

How did your philanthropy journey start and what areas are you most passionate about?

My father, who was a doctor, and my mother, who sat on the admissions committee of a medical school and who is now over 100 years old, have had a big influence on me. They instilled in me an interest in medicine and also a strong sense of social responsibility.

When I was a young boy, I was mesmerised by the American and Russian space programs. I was impressed by their long-term orientation, incredible technology and audacious objectives, and by the way technological breakthroughs could transform the future for the better.

While I have supported public health, sanitation, the environment, global over-population and other critical global issues, I had been looking for something big and transformative that combines medicine and technology.

What issues keep you awake at night and how could these be impacted by philanthropy?

I like to think a lot about society and about the big picture issues. It’s not just about medicine, and it’s not just about health, it’s about how to create more resiliency in society.

We need to increase the resiliency of the global community against the next pandemic. I like to think of societal cohesion like ice on a pond; pandemics and other crises put stress on the ice, and if the ice is too thin it may crack or break. By developing more tools to manage these crises we are strengthening the ice.

That’s where I feel this gift could make an enduring global contribution today and in the decades ahead. Mr Geoff Cumming

How did you arrive at the decision to give so generously to establish the Centre?

All of us want to live in a safe and healthy world. We want our families, our jobs and our communities to be safe and properly functioning. Pandemics threaten all of this, as the world has witnessed during the Spanish flu a century ago, during the AIDS crisis over the past forty years, during SARs, MERs, Ebola and especially during COVID-19.

This pandemic has had a profound impact on society. There have been millions of fatalities, and many people are going to be impacted by mental health and long COVID issues; and there’s also the economic cost of perhaps US$30 trillion in lost output.

The world needs additional protection beyond vaccines.  We need a second shield to protect the world when the next pandemic hits, whether in a year, a decade or a century. We need to increase the resiliency of the global community. This Centre will develop new technologies to treat future pathogens of pandemic potential. That is the fundamental mission of the new Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics.

What made you choose Australia, and in particular, Melbourne when considering the location for the Centre?

I had three goals for this gift: I wanted to make a gift to humanity, I wanted the gift to be in technology that will advance science and transform the future, and I wanted to leverage off Australia’s outstanding response to COVID-19.

Geoff Cumming, Sharon Lewin AO, and CGCPT staff.Mr Geoff Cumming (left) and Director of the Doherty Institute Professor Sharon Lewin AO (second from left) meeting staff members at the Doherty Institute.

I am very pleased to locate this Centre at the University of Melbourne and at the Doherty Institute. We are delighted to work with the Victorian Government, with the Commonwealth, with globally leading philanthropic organisations and with other donors and partners. This Centre is here in Melbourne due to the sustained investment in medical research by the Victorian Government, by the breadth of the medical research ecosystem here, by the collegiality of all the players involved and, in part, because of the relatively successful response by Australia to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our family have met many Doherty Institute staff and we have seen and felt the terrific culture. You want to bottle it; you do not want to lose it. And we just need to carry that culture and dedication across to this new Centre and replicate it there.

What impact do you hope the Centre will make globally over the next 10, 20, 30 years?

This Centre will bring together top scientists and brilliant young researchers from across Australia and around the world. It will be a top-tier global medical research centre. It will work in collaboration with other leading medical research centres in Australia, New Zealand, America, the United Kingdom and around the world.

I think we should have a really long timeframe, maybe 40, 50, 60 years. 10 years out, there should be some real indication that we’ve got meaningful success of some type – not full success, but meaningful success. We would’ve added to the stock of human knowledge, a new platform and a new pathway.

‘Blue sky’ or discovery science is the hardest science. It’s important to create the sense that there’s no such thing as failure per se. It is impossible to predict which areas of inquiry will lead to the next breakthrough, and we want an environment where people can take risks knowing that many avenues will lead to dead ends but that a few may lead to truly novel discoveries. We have high aspirations for our people and our results, but we recognise this will be a winding path forward and upwards.

We’ve really got to get people to feel there are no limits. We’ve got to allow people sufficient scope to really take risks and try brand new things, and then look at it down the road. And hopefully we will have accomplished that.

Our family hopes this new Centre will create meaningful advances in this area of global science and help make the world a safe place in the face of the next pandemic. Mr Geoff Cumming