Smith, Dr. Eldon

2007 Alberta Science and Technology Community, Recipient

Since leaving his position as the University of Calgary’s Dean of Medicine, Dr. Eldon Smith has worked very hard to stay out of the media. So it’s little surprise that he chatted with us from his summer home in rural Nova Scotia, where he was born and raised and lived until 1980, and where people can’t reach him unless he wants them to. He and Sheila, his wife of 43 years, spend four months a year there, enjoying their three grand children because, “The most important thing in life—and I’ve said this to my students many times—is not your research. It’s your family.” Of course, staying out of the media and enjoying a leisurely retirement are not always mutually inclusive. In his case, it means Dr. Smith cut down to between 60 and 80 hours a week, travelling more than 240,000km a year to Ottawa, Toronto (our condolences!), the US, and Europe. He has recently completed his second term as a trustee of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR). And then there are his active roles as director of a number of companies and Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal of Cardiology. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also note that in “retirement,”  Eldon Smith has found a little extra time to found, and serve as President and Director of, the Peter Lougheed Medical Research Foundation. Last, but definitely not least, he has shoehorned in space to head a Government of Canada initiative to develop a comprehensive national strategy for cardiovascular health and disease. Evidently, he doesn’t subscribe to the “Just Say No!” philosophy. We feel for Peggy, his executive assistant, and wonder if this is quite what she expected when her boss hung up his stethoscope.

Eldon Smith’s work ethic stems from his roots in a small Nova Scotia farming community 30 kilometres from Halifax. He was the first male to graduate from high school in a community whose weekday population of roughly 60 might “explode” to 80 on weekends. It was, he notes, a terrific place to grow up, filled as it was with wonderful people. After high school, he went to Dalhousie University, graduating cum laude and receiving the Faculty of Medicine’s gold medal, a foreshadowing of things to come. Upon completion of his graduate training in internal medicine, Dr. Smith was offered a year-long cardiology fellowship at England’s acclaimed University of London National Heart Hospital. This was followed, from 1970 to 1973, by three years of exceptional research opportunities enjoyed at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He and Sheila then returned to Halifax, where he spent seven years as a member of Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine before being lured to the University of Calgary in 1980 with an appointment as U of C/Foothills’ Head of Cardiology. In 1985, he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Medicine before becoming Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs in 1990. Two years later he was named Dean of Medicine, a position he held until 1997. Eldon asks if we notice a pattern. When we point out the obvious trail of success, he interjects. “No. I mean that I just can’t seem to hold a job for any length of time!”

The truth is he’s been consistently incapable of turning down a challenge. His tenure as dean was marked by massive budget cuts, which forced him to innovate. He believed then, as he does now, that a community cannot afford to lose its best and brightest. So he found a solution, going out to the community and asking Calgarians to support the med school. The result was $53 million and the ability not merely to retain some of U of C’s top people but also to attract a new generation of stars at a time in Alberta’s history when creating new initiatives was, at best, challenging. In fact, with all the accolades and accomplishments, his ability to provide leadership through a difficult period is what gives him the most pleasure. Leadership comes naturally to a man who, when he relinquished the reins of the School of Medicine didn’t just rest on his considerable laurels. Instead, his responsibilities merely shifted, and he accepted a position as co-chair of an ASRA committee tasked with developing a health research strategy for Alberta.

As a teacher, he always tried to instil in others the need to consider how their research would impact health and socio-economic issues. He believed then, as he does now, that technology transfer is a vital component of success in health research. Those who develop an idea that might improve the health of the Albertans (who paid for the work) have an obligation to translate their efforts into something that could, in turn, benefit the average person. By so doing, we improve health and wealth, creating a bio-technology industry that will provide opportunity for future generations of researchers. And Eldon Smith has walked the walk, holding several patents that have become commercially viable.

That’s merely the tip of a massive iceberg of accomplishments, a list that includes: being published on numerous occasions by Circulation, the world’s top cardio-vascular journal; being honoured by the Filipino Senate for having helped build a medical school in the southern Philippine province of Mindanao, a facility now recognised throughout Southeast Asia as having the region’s most innovative programs; and receiving, in no particular order, an Award of Merit from the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Alberta Medical Association’s Emeritus Award, the Canadian Medical Association’s 2005 Medal of Service bolstered, this year, by a CMA life membership, and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada’s Graham Award for outstanding service. Are we forgetting anything? Oh. Yeah. The Order of Canada. That’s right. The Order of Canada is almost an afterthought. Not because he’s not pleased to receive the many accolades. Rather, it goes back to Dr. Smith’s mantra about family being the most important thing of all. In fact, ASTech Award success is a family business started by Eldon’s son, Greg. His company, Revolve Technologies, received the 1996 Outstanding Commercial Achievement in Alberta Science and Technology Award. And then there’s daughter Trudi, completing her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Victoria and combining her studies with a passion for photography to complete a thesis studying the impact man, time, and other influences have had on our national parks. And there’s fishing with his grandchildren. Finally, and certainly not least, there’s spending time with Sheila. Even with his “retirement” schedule, it all comes back to family. Yes, commercialising your intellectual property is vitally important. But for Dr. Eldon Smith, the real impact we must all strive to achieve is having kids who turn out to be good citizens.