​​​ Donald K. Johnson
Toronto philanthropist and businessman Donald K. Johnson has donated a total of $65 million to UHN, to support vision research and patient care in Canada. (Photo: Tim Fraser)

At a belated birthday celebration at his Toronto home, businessman and philanthropist Donald K. Johnson announced he will donate $50 million to the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at UHN.

This gift is the largest gift of its kind in Canada dedicated to vision research and patient care.

"I celebrated my 80th birthday six years ago by making a $10-million donation to the Eye Institute," he told attendees. "I'm now pleased to share with you that to celebrate my 86th birthday, I am making a donation of $50 million."

Johnson's birthday falls on June 18, but COVID-19 pandemic restrictions delayed this year's celebration.

Changing the vision research landscape in Canada

The legendary Bay Street investment banker and his late wife, Anna McCowan Johnson, have been longtime supporters of vision science and cutting-edge care at the Eye Institute, located at Toronto Western Hospital.

This new investment will significantly increase research capacity and bolster the ability of scientists, in partnership with clinicians, to translate discoveries into treatments more quickly. This includes expanding the Clinical Trials Program into a dedicated Clinical Research Unit, providing the long-term infrastructure, resources and sustainability to retain and recruit top experts, and propel future discoveries – ultimately, improving outcomes for patients suffering from vision loss in Canada and around the world.

"Don's support has totally changed the vision program and the vision research landscape in Canada," says Dr. Valerie Wallace, Co-Director of the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute and holder of the Donald K. Johnson Chair in Vision Research. "With his significant gift six years ago, we built our discovery research capacity and enhanced clinical research.

"Now, with his new, transformative gift, the impact will be global and the legacy long-lasting. Don, our gratitude may be beyond words, but thank you."

Dr. Wallace became head of vision research in 2013.

"Since her arrival, Dr. Wallace has assembled a great team of six senior scientists," Mr. Johnson said. "They are conducting cutting-edge research on the prevention and treatment of several leading eye diseases, including glaucoma, macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, to name a few."

The Eye Institute comprises more than 54 clinicians, researchers, fellows and residents with more than 6,000 surgeries every year and 120,800 patient visits over nine specialty clinics and services. With more than 70 clinical trials completed and over 50 currently active, discoveries are leading to real-world treatments for patients.

Training the next generation of leaders in ophthalmology

In addition to research, Mr. Johnson's gift will also create three endowed clinical fellowships in tribute to Drs. Robert Devenyi, Allan Slomovic and Graham Trope – three clinicians who have helped preserve and restore his sight, including reducing his need for glasses or contact lenses. The fellowships will train the next generation of leaders in ophthalmology.

Since 2000, the world's best and brightest fellows from more than 35 countries have been coming to the Eye Institute to learn from experts across all subspecialties of ophthalmology, in an unparalleled environment.

"I am a very grateful patient of my three favourite ophthalmologists and the great team they have assembled," says Mr. Johnson. "Dr. Devenyi has led a superb team of 18 ophthalmologists across eight sub-specialties for 20 years – a UHN record for serving in this important role."

Dr. Devenyi is the longest-serving Ophthalmologist-in-Chief in the history of UHN and Co-Chair of the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute.

"Don, you dream big," Dr. Devenyi said. "In every patient whose sight we save, I've seen your dreams come true. Today, we offer treatments that, when I stepped into this role, did not exist. And the number of patients we are able to provide life-changing care for has gone up and up and up.

"Now, I am also humbled that you honour me with a fellowship in my name. How many more lives will be impacted by this fellowship? Countless.

"Thank you for your insurmountable generosity and your joyful spirit."

A longstanding champion for vision care

Since 1986, Mr. Johnson has been a champion in Canada for those suffering from debilitating vision loss. He has served on the board of UHN Foundation, formerly Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation, for 22 years where he is currently Chair of the fundraising campaign for the Eye Institute and a member of the Board's investment committee.

In 2007, Mr. Johnson and his wife donated $5 million to create the Donald K. Johnson Eye Centre, which enabled the expansion of UHN's vision research program and provided capital investment to offer patients the most advanced diagnostic equipment. In 2015, the Johnsons' reinvestment of an additional $10 million transformed the Eye Centre into the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute.

This latest gift will bring Mr. Johnson's cumulative giving to $65 million, paralleling the upward trajectory of discovery, innovation and the capacity to care for more patients.

"My favourite charitable cause is the Eye Institute," says Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2009, thanks in part for his work to remove the capital gains tax on donating listed securities to make it easier for donors to give to registered charities. He is currently continuing the campaign to renew and expand this measure to include tax exemption on gifts of private company shares and real estate. This change could strengthen the entire charitable sector with an estimated increase of $200 million dollars per year in charitable donations.

During his celebratory speech, Mr. Johnson closed his remarks with his two favourite expressions in philanthropy: "It's better to give away with a warm hand than a cold hand, and he who gives while he lives also knows where it goes."

Learn more about Donald K. Johnson.

Learn more about the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute.

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