Research Excellence from the Ground Up
Reflecting on the early days of the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre
“He laughed in my face. I decided that was the last time anybody would do that.”
In May 2016, Dr. John Foerster was inducted into the St. Boniface Hospital Research Hall of Fame. It is yet another honour for this Manitoba medical pioneer who also earned St. Boniface Hospital Foundation’s International Award and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Manitoba – both in 2006.
Not only is Dr. Foerster respected for his work in hematology (diseases of the blood) and oncology (the treatment and study of cancer), he is also revered for his administrative leadership and his ability to attract funding and leading research personnel.
Following his medical studies in Winnipeg, Salt Lake City, and then New York, Dr. Foerster decided to accept an offer from the University of Manitoba in 1969, and then in 1975 he became the Head of Medicine at St. Boniface Hospital. He was 40 at the time, “probably the youngest anybody’s ever been as the head of medicine at a major institution, at least around here,” says Dr. Foerster.
“What the University specifically charged me with was the responsibility for improving the teaching and research at St. Boniface Hospital. We addressed the teaching part first, and that was easily solved in a few months,” recalls Dr. Foerster. “Then I turned my attention to the business of research. Like with all other things, you have to have a vision about what you want to accomplish. I talked to the Foundation. They were very supportive. They said they would help me with financial support for researchers that we might recruit and so on.”
Dr. Foerster’s vision very much centred around the pursuit of excellence.
“If you want to have excellence in research, you have to go after excellent researchers,” he says. Sometimes, though, his recruiting efforts were stymied by the lack of research infrastructure at the time. He recalls his attempt to hire a Montreal-based neuroscientist to join the fledgling research team. While visiting Winnipeg, he expressed interest in Dr. Foerster’s offer and then asked to see his new research space. In anticipation of the request, Dr. Foerster had assembled 6,000 square feet of research space in the basement of a hospital wing, across the aisle from his own office and then, with a sweep of the hand, presented it to the recruit. “He laughed in my face,” says Dr. Foerster. “I decided that was the last time anybody would do that.”
Dr. Foerster started to dream of expanded, state-of-the-art research space and gained allies at the Hospital and Foundation. He travelled with the architects to other research facilities to assess what Winnipeg needed and what was achievable. Enthusiasm grew quickly and the facility now known as the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre opened its doors in 1987. It was the first free-standing research facility constructed in Canada.
Under his leadership as Executive Director of Research, the Centre went from nothing but an empty lot and a dream to a robust enterprise with an internationally acclaimed staff of 190 and a multi-million dollar budget by the time he retired in 2006.
One of the key milestone events of Dr. Foerster’s tenure was the launch of the Centre for Research on Diseases of the Aging within the Research Centre (which now bears his name). It remains an important area of interest for him.
“The neurodegenerative diseases create a terrible problem,” he explains. “If you take Alzheimer’s disease as an example, between the ages of 65 and 75, roughly three percent of people develop the disease. Between 75 and 85, it jumps to 19 percent. Above 85 it’s way up there, close to 40 percent. It creates a tremendous problem for the health care system. We’re running into this right now. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. So far we have discovered what causes it, but we have not yet discovered how to treat it effectively. It’s just one example. Stroke is another. We have learned how to deal with strokes a lot better than we did in the past.”
Dr. Foerster says that a great deal of work still needs to be done on Alzheimer’s research to achieve better results for individuals and to produce greater efficiencies in the system as the population ages. “If we could postpone the onset of the Alzheimer’s by five years, we would cut the health care cost for that individual in half,” says Dr. Foerster. “The promise is there. The question is, how are we going to accomplish that?”
For Dr. Foerster, the keys to success for the Research Centre include nurturing excellence among local researchers and to sustaining the interest of funders at all levels. These are two areas that drove him while serving as Executive Director. He also believes that maintaining a high level of research is a demonstration of accountability for an institute so heavily supported by private donors.
“In terms of the involvement of the community, we introduced something that I think was tremendously helpful,” he says. “Every year we had an open house. We invited the community, especially people living around the hospital to come and see what we were doing. We had it open for one day. Four thousand people came through the Research Centre. They went from one lab to the other. We shifted them around. We did this on a recurring basis. Previously, the community had no idea what was going on in this place. No idea whatsoever. After we instituted this, it turned out that we had the financial support of about 30,000 new supporters, with average donations of $100 per donor every year.”
While retired, Dr. Foerster remains a passionate supporter of St. Boniface Hospital and the St. Boniface Hospital Foundation. And he has a keen interest in promoting medical research as a career choice for youth.
“I think the most important thing is for them to be exposed to exciting, productive mentors, or people who could stimulate them to do the right thing and make the right decisions,” he says.
The decisions Dr. Foerster has made over the years have had an enormous impact on medical research in Manitoba and globally. His legacy will endure.
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