All About Estates

Canada’s Greatest Impact Donation

The FitzGerald Building at the University of Toronto housed the School of Hygiene (Public Health). It was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation with a $650,000 grant in 1927.

What’s the greatest impact donation in Canadian history? I’d argue it is a forgotten gift of $75,000 made by Colonel Albert E. Gooderham in 1915 to purchase and outfit a farm north of Toronto for the Connaught Laboratories to produce vaccines for diphtheria and other communicable diseases.

Impact is one of those philanthropic buzzwords that’s hard to define, but perhaps easy to know when you see it. The Gooderham donation for Connaught has all the elements.

1. Sustainability and scale

Connaught Labs was a major social enterprise. From inception, it produced vaccines efficiently at below market rate. For example, it sold tetanus antitoxin for British and Canadian soldiers in World War I at 65 cents per 1000 doses when for-profit competitors were charging $1.35 per 1000.  Connaught reduced the price of the diphtheria to 1/5 the going rate.  It became the lead producer in Canada of vaccines and antitoxins in 20 countries around the world. When insulin was invented in Toronto in 1923, Connaught became the primary manufacturer (along with Eli Lilly in the US, which was under license to the University). Funded through earned revenue, Connaught spun off profits that were reinvested in medical research at the University of Toronto.

2.  Leverage

The bench to bedside/community health clinic cycle was exceptionally short and profits were reinvested into research and talent. UofT became the third largest medical research centre in North America by the 1920s – it’s now number two. Millions of dollars of research funding and donation flowed in, including Rockefeller Foundation funding of the School of Hygiene (Public Health) and the Fitzgerald Building.

3.  Public health outcomes

Vaccines arguably saved more lives than any medicine or medical procedure in history. Lives saved by insulin since 1923, one of the first modern drugs, has exceeded those lost in both world wars. Connaught was at the centre of this world movement and Ontario, in particular, became an exemplar in public health.

Connaught Laboratories was the brainchild of the brilliant and driven social entrepreneur Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald. This small town Ontario boy was the Bill Gates of non-profit public health. He learned how to make vaccines in Europe and America just as the science was emerging. FitzGerald applied his new knowledge in Canada and built a publicly-owned organization to deliver vaccines for free to all citizens through government programs.

The tragedy of FitzGerald and, to a lesser extent, Connaught Labs is told in the gripping family memoir, What Disturbs the Blood, by James FitzGerald. The remarkable Dr. FitzGerald committed suicide in 1940. It could be argued that UofT didn’t invest in Connaught Labs, which lost competitiveness and was sold in 1972 for $29 million. Its bones are now part of Sanofi Pasteur, the largest vaccine maker in the world.  The University of Toronto has a history of Connaught on its website.

This is a philanthropic story that is hard to repeat. There was a rare convergence of independent factors: social need, science, scientist, donor, team, university and governments. Gooderham was a philanthropist who personally knew the scientific leaders of day. He made a lifetime donation and it pushed the University and Province of Ontario to invest and support this area. (The institution wasn’t the driver here: the physicians and donor were.)

I’d hazard a guess that this kind of start-up could not have been funded by a gift by will. An estate donation could support the work that has begun, but not start it.  Timing and control is too important.  The Connaught story is an argument for giving in life, or in certain cases, funding foundations that will have sufficient knowledge and ambition to fund high impact causes in the future.


About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.


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