The future of medical education built on a history of philanthropy

Fashion retailer and philanthropist George Davies found his name in lights as a new £42 million building was named in his honour and officially opened by Sir David Attenborough OM and Michael Attenborough CBE.

The spotlights were on the George Davies Centre as benefactors and friends of the University, distinguished guests and staff and students all came together in the innovative building.

With the frontage lit up to welcome arrivals, guests were led through the Centre and were able to admire the cutting-edge architecture of this landmark in building design. Guests then heard from senior figures of the University, prominent donors to the fundraising appeal that funded the building, and from the honoured guests themselves  on this auspicious occasion.

In her welcome address, Chairman of the University Council Dr Bridget Towle CBE DL said the Centre made a difference to medical teaching and research - and ultimately to patient care. In thanking those who had supported the Centre, Dr Towle CBE DL highlighted the importance of philanthropy in the future of the University and spoke about its impact in the region as well as nationally and internationally. “I would like to thank you all for your generosity and your unstinting and continuing support as without it the completion of this Centre would not have happened.”

As the opening coincided with Remembrance Day on 11 November, President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Boyle CBE took the opportunity to reflect upon the University’s establishment as a living memorial at the end of the First World War, one of only two universities in the world with that honour. “This does make our University unique. It was a community that came together and established us. That’s represented by our motto ‘Ut Vitam Habeant’ – so that they may have life.”

Professor Boyle CBE added: “It’s a motto that seems particularly apt today as we open a medical building which will be a building that will give life, not just in terms of the students who will study here but life to the patients and others in this region that will benefit from the work that goes on here.”

Invaluable contributions

Businessman Sir David Samworth CBE DL spoke about the honour bestowed upon him and his family and of his sense of pride for all those who had contributed to the Centre. Speaking of the lecture theatre named after his family, he said: “May I hope that those that lecture and those that listen to the lectures in the theatre and in this wonderful building may do so with enthusiasm and success in the years to come.”

Naresh Popat also spoke of his sense of honour at being invited to address the guests.   Sharing his family story, he recounted how he came to Leicester from Uganda in 1972, aged 16.  He described how his father’s life was saved by paramedics following a heart attack and he described the love he felt from the host community.

“I lived in a council house in those days and I promised my father if ever I made money or was successful, I would share my fortune with the community and help where I can. And this is where my story began.”

Mr Popat described his career journey in retail and in property.  “I became very successful and I thought I am getting somewhere in my life and this is my opportunity to start giving some of my wealth away. I started doing community work in 1987 organising dinners and dances for Sightsavers and Save the Children.  I joined Professor Sir Nilesh Samani’s charity and supported that as well as the Lion’s Club where we do a lot of good work and raise enormous amounts for charity.”

Mr Popat also described his involvement with the George Davies Centre and his sense of excitement in its development.  “I thought this is the time I can do something very positive to help in research, in training of new doctors and in development of new medical systems.”  He said one of the lecture rooms was named after his wife, Bina Popat, whom he dearly loves.

The George Davies Centre represents the biggest investment in medical education and applied research in the UK for a decade and a building that is built to such meticulous energy conservation standards that it’s been designated as the biggest Passivhaus building in the UK. Professor Philip Baker, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Life Sciences, explained that these world-class facilities were the perfect complement to the innovative work that goes on in the College. “It is a building that all those who have contributed to should feel really proud of and it’s a building that is worthy of the staff and students that work here. Staff and students that are of a calibre that is second to none.”

Formative years at the University

Sir David Attenborough OM recalled how he came to this institution in 1932, aged six.  His father was appointed Principal of the University College and Sir David recalled it as an ‘extraordinary and marvellous place’ for a child of six.  He remembered the Fielding Johnson Building as the original building on the plot which was appropriately, in this medical context, a former mental hospital.

Sir David recalled living in the superintendent’s house - College House – and spoke of his fascination with the site: “Growing up there was absolutely fabulous - I could tell you things about the cellars. We had wonderful ways to play in what was liked to an underground cave system –it was very exciting.”

Speaking of his father’s role as Principal of the University College, he said his job was actually to raise money. The names of benefactors were enshrined in the buildings on campus – and Sir David recalled meeting many of them personally.  He paid tribute to Fielding Johnson’s extraordinary act of generosity and philanthropy in donating the building and land for the establishment of the University College.

Names such as Dr Astley Clark and Sir Jonathan North will be familiar to many of those working and studying at the University and Sir David recalled their visits to the campus. He particularly remembered Sir Jonathan as a ‘saintly-looking man’ with white hair and a beard. “When he left, I and my two brothers were lined up to stand on parade and say thank you. I remember one occasion very clearly. We were standing there and up came this old gentlemen and we were introduced and shook hands. To my astonishment, Sir Jonathan North put his hand in his pocket and took out a half-crown. Now, my pocket money at the time was tuppence and I looked at this in astonishment.

“I looked up at him and said ‘Thank you, Saint Jonathan!’”

Opening opportunities

Sir David then unveiled the commemorative plaque with his nephew Michael Attenborough CBE and George Davies, officially opening and naming the building in honour of the prominent retailer and benefactor. George then followed with a few words of his own, describing David as the ‘most outstanding broadcaster of our generation’ and discussing his long history with Leicester.

In discussing why he continues to contribute to healthcare causes he expressed his feeling that those with success ‘should give back to help other people.’ His association with the University of Leicester and Leicester’s Hospitals saw him focus on Type-1 or Type-2 diabetes where there is a limb lost very quickly if it’s not attended to. He explained: “I said I’ll do this because I want to give something back – giving money is relatively easy if you’ve got it, but it should also be actually giving part of what you’ve got, your ability.”

George Davies recently gave his support to transformative research into peripheral vascular disease at the University and a new vascular limb salvage clinic at Glenfield Hospital with a £5.15 million gift. The funds, the University’s largest-ever philanthropic gift from an individual, will help patients who have poor circulation in the legs and prevent these patients from undergoing an amputation procedure.

The honoured guests then had the opportunity to speak to journalists where Sir David said: “This Centre will be a very valuable addition for training doctors throughout the country. From what I have seen of it, it is absolutely in the top drawer of medical education.”

George Davies said it was ‘quite a shock’ to have a building named after him – and he expressed his delight at the honour.

He added: “The most important thing for me is young people and I hope this Centre motivates people – because if you have motivation, you can achieve anything in the world.

“What I like about Leicester is its great multiculturalism – that is really important.  I have been travelling the world since I was young.  I don’t see differences – I see talent and the fact that everybody can be the same.”

Michael Attenborough CBE told journalists that the family connection was most special to him. “My grandfather was Principal and it is like coming back to the family roots here.  The opening of this magnificent building with my esteemed uncle is extraordinary.

“There is also another extraordinary thing.  Right across the road is the Attenborough Arts Centre which was founded and part paid for by father, Richard, who sadly died two years ago.

“The connection in my humble opinion between medicine, psychology and the arts holds huge fruit waiting for us to discover.  My hunch is there is a healing, redemptive, gorgeously creative role there for the arts and the relationship between psychology and the arts is a very rich one – and one I know this building and the Attenborough Arts Centre are already beginning to explore.”

Watch a video of the opening of the George Davies Centre:

In drawing his speech to a close, Sir David reflected on how his experience speaks of how the University has ‘benefitted hugely from private philanthropy and the citizens of this great city’. His father and his benefactors yearned to establish a medical school at Leicester but it would be after their time that their ambitions would be realised and even longer before that medical school would find its home in the new George Davies Centre.

“But now,” Sir David concluded, “I have to say, ‘Thank you, Saint George!’”