A retiring professor and her husband have donated a whopping $1 million to the University of Auckland to help with groundbreaking research that could see wheelchair users able to walk again.

Professor Louise Nicholson's parting gift is the largest single donation ever made by a staff member of the university and will be used to support PhD students working to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.

During her almost 30 years of working at the university, Nicholson, 64, helped establish the Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility in 2011, funded by the CatWalk Trust, which she is determined to see succeed.

"I would like to see it grow in terms of capacity. I would like there to be more hands at the bench, more people working towards finding a cure for spinal cord injury," said Nicholson, who wants to inspire the next generation of researchers.

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"I like doing things for other people like my students and the people I have had the privilege to mentor. I look at some of these young people now, particularly women, and think, boy that's my legacy. It's just wonderful to see.

"I would like this money we have left to be a legacy in the same way."

In 2014, after about seven years of terrible headaches, Nicholson was diagnosed with a brain tumour. That diagnosis has played a big part in her decision to retire this week.

"When you have a health issue it gives you a big wake up and you realise that in fact life is pretty short, we're only here for a short amount of time and we had better make the most of it.

"I want to do something for the University of Auckland. It's been a wonderful working environment for me. My colleagues are superb. I love my students and my teaching."

Professor Louise Nicholson was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2014. Photo/Greg Bowker
Professor Louise Nicholson was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2014. Photo/Greg Bowker

University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon said he was humbled by the Nicholsons' generous support of the university.

"Louise's dedication to students, staff and research at the University of Auckland has been absolutely outstanding. This unprecedented donation will allow us to continue our commitment to research that has a positive impact on improving the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.

"Louise and Jon's decision to support ongoing research epitomises the essence of the value of our university, to change lives for the better and contribute to long-term positive outcomes for our citizens."

The couple's connection with the university goes a long way back - they first met in the library in 1971. They now have one son, Jonathan, 44, and three grandchildren.

"She rescued me. I didn't have any idea about studying," said Jon, 75. "She thought I wasn't doing well and came up to me in the library and said, 'You're going to have to straighten yourself out and stop all those social catch-ups'. I thought, boy she's a keeper."

The budding scientists were both studying zoology. Nicholson completed those studies alongside botany and then went on to cell biology but Jon, who had sports to play and those parties to attend, didn't fare so well.

Nonetheless he had another crack at studying and ended up with a masters degree in marine science. As for Nicholson, she completed her PhD at the university and later took up a Rhodes Fellowship at Oxford.

At that time, Jon helped set up BioMarine, a business that farmed, processed and exported oysters and mussels all over the world.

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"This started out using my last $3000 and ended when one of the big fishing companies bought us out 28 years later," Jon said.

"I believe that this wouldn't have been possible without the education I received at the institution," he said. "It is in recognition of all the things the university gave me that I am pleased to join with Louise to make this contribution to assist future young people to achieve their dreams."

Retiring staff member Professor Louise Nicholson and her husband Jon have made the extraordinary decision to donate $1 million to the University of Auckland. Photo / Greg Bowker
Retiring staff member Professor Louise Nicholson and her husband Jon have made the extraordinary decision to donate $1 million to the University of Auckland. Photo / Greg Bowker

Nicholson returned to the university in 1989 to teach. She lived in Auckland during the week for work and would return home to Warkworth at the weekends to spend time with Jon.

"I think it's time to do some things with my husband now and put a little back into my home life," said Nicholson who was looking forward to getting out in her garden.

But she will always be interested in spinal cord research.

"I would like to be around when we find a cure for spinal cord injury. It would be wonderful to actually bring this together to be able to address some of the limitations in people who have spinal cord injury," she said.

"Spinal cord injury is devastating and very far reaching for the individual and family but in terms of numbers of people it doesn't touch the population such as cancer would, so it's not a research area that has wide knowledge within the community.

"There is huge potential to actually make a difference and find a cure."

And it is exactly that which the Nicholsons hope their donation will help achieve.

"I don't need this money. My life is very good, I'm very content and I think it can have a much bigger impact by using it in this way," said Nicholson.

For All Our Futures

The University of Auckland For All Our Futures campaign started in September last year with the aim of raising $300 million to answer some of the biggest questions facing New Zealand society.

The latest $1 million gift from Professor Louise Nicholson and her husband Jon, brings the campaign's fundraising total to $200 million.

It follows a number of landmark gifts supporting a variety of specific projects, research and student scholarships.

In February, $2 million was donated by one the Faculty of Law's longest standing donors, Dr John Mayo. It will fund a new academic chair in health law and policy.

The New York-based Aotearoa Foundation pledged $6.8 million to support leading researchers at the University's Auckland Bioengineering Institute and Centre for Brain Research.

A gift of $2.6 million from Sir Owen Glenn will support innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives, including a new innovation hub, which will open later this year.

An anonymous $1.4 million donation will establish New Zealand's first specialist cancer clinical trials research unit, giving New Zealand cancer patients greater access to new treatments through clinical trials. The centre is a joint initiative between the University's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences and the Auckland District Health Board's (ADHB) Regional Cancer and Blood Service.

The campaign will run until 2020.

• Further information is available at www.giving.auckland.ac.nz