Retired dentistry professor helps fund University of Alberta's new health sciences library

A large donation from a retired dentistry professor and his wife will help the University of Alberta build a new health sciences library on the main and lower levels of the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy.

Gift is one of the largest ever to the school’s library network

Robyn and Geoffrey Sperber's donation to the University of Alberta will help build a new health sciences library. (University of Alberta)

A large donation from a retired dentistry professor and his wife will help the University of Alberta build a new health sciences library at the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy.

Geoffrey Sperber and his wife, Robyn, donated to the school more than a year ago. Their contributions were recognized Wednesday in a private, physically distanced reception at the university.

At his request, the donation amount is not being disclosed publicly, but according to the university it is one of the largest donations ever made to the school's library system.

The gift comes at an opportune time as the university proceeds with restructuring plans to reduce its overall expenses by $120 million over the next three years.

"It does relieve my tax bill," Sperber told CBC News. "But the money is devoted to what I wish it to be: enlarging the student capabilities, education and research facilities of the university."

In a Wednesday interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active, he said he was delighted to contribute to the library.

The current health sciences library — closed at the moment due to COVID-19 — is on the second floor of the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre, which also houses the University of Alberta Hospital. 

AHS, which runs the hospital, wants to use the library space for medical purposes, Sperber said, so the university needed to find a new location.

U of A chief librarian Dale Askey said the new library, scheduled to open on the main and lower levels in the ECHA building in 2024, will be much more modern, with lots of new technology.

Though students and researchers have appreciated the older library's natural light, the facility was built in the 1980s and does not reflect how much research and teaching methods have changed over the years, Askey said.

Dentistry professor Geoffrey Sperber shows off a shark's jaw from the University of Alberta's dental museum in a 1974 interview with the school's department of radio and television. (University of Alberta/Education and Research Archive)

Sperber is pleased that the new library will include a rotating display of items from the university's dentistry museum, whose collection he used to curate.

For years, the collection's century-old dental chairs, rare animal skulls, portable dental kits and ivory dentures have been less accessible to students and the public. 

Sperber, 86, grew up in South Africa, where he earned multiple degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

After working as a dentist in London, England, in the late 1950s and then earning a master of science degree at the University of Rochester in New York, he moved to Edmonton in 1961 to teach anatomy and physiology to students in a new dental hygiene program.

Though retired since 1996, Sperber is still immersed in his field and students still read the textbooks he wrote. Before the pandemic, he worked at his office on campus every weekday.

Askey said space planning for the new library is underway and the design phase is expected to start in the new year. 


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.

With files from Rod Kurtz