Historic gift to new library will spark research and learning across health sciences

Donation by Geoffrey and Robyn Sperber one of the largest ever to U of A Library.


Donors Robyn and Geoffrey Sperber have been close friends of the University of Alberta for almost 60 years. Now, their gift will help build a new health sciences library at the university. (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

The night before his first lecture, Geoffrey Sperber sat in a quiet dorm room of Athabasca Hall. He pored nervously over the pages of Gray’s Anatomy, unsure whether he really knew enough to take his place at the front of the classroom.

It was 1961, and at 27 years old, Sperber had just arrived in Edmonton to teach in the new dental hygiene program launched by what was then known as the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Dentistry.

Six decades later, Sperber has now written his own textbooks, having enjoyed a long career as a researcher and lecturer. At 86, he remains a well-respected expert on craniofacial development—the study of how the head and facial bones form in the womb.

He and his wife, Robyn, are now giving back to the institution where Sperber spent virtually his entire career. The couple has made a major gift to help build the U of A’s new health sciences library, which is expected to open by 2024. The gift is one of the largest in the history of the U of A Library.

“It’s an absolute delight to contribute to the U of A. The university has been the centre of my life,” said Sperber.

Sperber hopes his investment will accelerate research and spur innovation by bringing health sciences faculty members and students into one space. The new library will be built on the main and lower levels of the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, a facility designed to foster interdisciplinary health sciences research and teaching.

“Collaboration is vital to solving the complex health challenges our interconnected world faces—challenges like COVID-19,” said U of A president Bill Flanagan upon announcing the Sperbers’ gift at a small reception on Nov. 4. “The new health sciences library will be part of that transformation, sparking collaboration in the health sciences.”

Igniting curiosity

Decades on from teaching his first dentistry courses, Sperber, who before the pandemic went to his office on North Campus every weekday, still keeps up with the changing profession. He recently updated his textbook, Craniofacial Embryogenetics and Development, with his son, Steven Sperber, one of the book’s co-authors. The textbook remains on the reading lists for many dentistry courses.

“There’s one word you can put down as the major impetus for my career—curiosity. It is a curious mind that sees things that most people don't see. This is what makes a scientist,” Sperber said.

Sperber’s gift will allow students to practise their own curiosity, while also helping them gain an appreciation for the advances made by the U of A’s School of Dentistry, which was founded in 1917 and is Western Canada’s oldest dental school. The new library will include a rotating display from the U of A’s Dentistry Museum Collection, which Sperber once curated. The collection features items such as a 19th-century dental chair and ivory dentures carved from hippopotamus tusks.

“I think any educated person needs to have a little background of where they came from before they can know where they're going,” he said.

Supporting students and research

U of A chief librarian Dale Askey said the vision is to create the most modern health sciences library in Canada. It will include the latest technology, including 3-D printers, virtual reality and data visualization.

“This project presents an opportunity for the medical and dental community to rethink what a library can be. The library will provide access to tools that allow our researchers to think creatively and work together—contributing not only to physical health, but also to the economic health of our province,” said Askey.

For the Sperbers, the gift is deeply personal. All three of their children attended the U of A, which Sperber calls his “second family.”

“What could be more fitting than contributing to the school that has given me my career, my life, my opportunities?”