June 10, 2024

Dr. Irving Rootman's Impactful Legacy

From UCalgary student to global health advocate, meet one of the university’s first-ever grads from 1964.
Irving Rootman
Irving 1964

With 2024 Spring Convocation now in the history books, another amazing group of graduates has been added to our University of Calgary Alumni family. We had the chance to speak to one of UCalgary’s first-ever graduates from the mid-1960s for some of his memories of convocation day. 

When Dr. Irving Rootman, BA’64, PhD, graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in sociology, UCalgary was known as the University of Alberta, Calgary.  He was then accepted to Yale University where he would complete his PhD in social sciences in 1970, en route to becoming an internationally recognized leader in health promotion. 

“I feel that my education at the University of Calgary in the field of sociology gave me an excellent formation for my work at Yale,” says Rootman. “It got me on the right track to my career.”

In what would be a career spanning more than four decades in public service and academia, Rootman has been instrumental in effecting positive change in health policy and practice. His commitment to addressing health equity and social justice has manifested through his roles as a researcher, research manager, program manager and educator with the federal government, the World Health Organization, the University of Toronto and the University of Victoria. He also holds honorary doctorates from UVic and St. Frances Xavier University, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

Rootman's research journey began at UCalgary, exploring alcohol and drug use. His entrepreneurial spirit and drive to make a difference took him to England on a postdoctoral award in 1972, resulting in 18 research papers on drug use, mental health and suicide. Back in Canada by 1982, he served as the chief of epidemiology and social research for Health and Welfare Canada, and later led the landmark Canadian Health Promotion Survey. His continued dedication to health promotion led him to establish the Centre for Health Promotion at the University of Toronto, serving as its first director. 

“If you really want to build a healthy future for yourself, your families and the world, you need to become personally engaged in doing so by supporting and getting involved in efforts to promote healthy images of the future, where everyone has the opportunity to flourish,” Rootman says.

Even in retirement, Rootman continues to impact health-promotion policy and practice, recently serving on the Executive Committee of Health Promotion Canada and various committees for the Public Health Association of B.C. His remarkable journey is a testament to UCalgary's emphasis on entrepreneurial thinking and community involvement. 

“I am most proud of being a pioneer in creating and contributing to the field of health promotion and editing and writing books and articles in the field,” says Rootman.

When asked for his advice to today’s grads, Rootman says: “Strive toward an intelligent autonomy of thought, autonomy of action and autonomy of spirt … look for the positive and let it guide you in your life.” He also advises the new alums to “become personally engaged in doing so by supporting and getting involved in efforts to promote healthy images of the future, where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.”

Dr. Irving Rootman truly started something incredible right here at UCalgary. His work has left an indelible mark on health promotion in Canada and around the world. As a community, we are proud to call him one of our own and look forward to witnessing the continued impact of his work. 

Irv Group

Below is a transcription of Dr. Rootman’s Valedictory Address from 1964:


Valedictory Address

University of Calgary

May 27, 1964

Delivered by Irving Rootman, Bachelor of Arts graduate


Mr. President, Your Honour, Mr. Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen and Fellow Students;

Six days ago, when I learned that I was invited to deliver the valedictory address in the convocation ceremony tonight, I immediately tried to discover a university experience common to all of us who are graduating here tonight upon which future memories are likely to focus. This was difficult, because I soon realized that the most meaningful experiences, were individual in nature, and as such, different for all of us. And this it is the way it should be. 

However, I finally thought of one experience common to every one of us, namely our convocation here tonight. As most of you realize, this is no ordinary convocation — it is in fact a very special one, it is the first spring convocation to be held at the University of Calgary. And as such, it represents the growth of our university toward total autonomy. “Autonomy”: that one word even today glowing fourth from our car bumpers; that word which probably more than any other characterizes our university year just concluding.

Now, you may say to yourself, autonomy will be just great for the University of Calgary but what will it really mean for the graduates of the University of Calgary? It is my contention that complete autonomy will be inconsequential to most of this graduating class in terms of our ongoing develop as human beings.

However, what can be consequential is contained within the idea of autonomy itself. According to the Webster International Dictionary autonomy is “the quality of being independent and, free and self-directing: individual or group freedom.” Thus, as the definition states, the term independent to an institution such as the University of Calgary, or to such individuals as its graduates. 

The eminent Canadian psychologist W.E. Blatz suggests that every human being, in order to operate effectively in society, must maintain some measure of what he called “independent security.” In addition, he suggests that it is the object of education to enable the individual to become independently secure. 

Our class has been privileged this year to watch the University of Calgary gradually attain her Autonomy, first by the Convocation; second, and more concretely by the establishment of an independent Faculty Council, and third, by the appointment of Dr. [Herbert Stoker] Armstrong, our first president. 

Thus, our university has, in a manner of speaking, been paralleling our individual steps as students toward maturity in which, as individuals, not only do we have the right to make our own decision, but we have the clear responsibility to make them, to think for ourselves, to refuse all claimants on our loyalty and automatic obedience.

Just as this convocation ceremony is symbolic of a partial attainment of autonomy for the University of Calgary, so then, is it symbolic of a partial attainment or autonomy for us. Furthermore, just as the University of Calgary presumably will not stop seeking her autonomy with this important step, I hope that we will not stop seeking our autonomy with the award of today’s sheepskin.

In a world that is changing rapidly as is the one that we live, people able to act consciously, intelligently, and automatically are even in more demand than in the past. Never has it been more necessary for us to refuse to automatically follow mass leadership; never has there been a greater need courageous, independent thought and responsible decision-making; for in a word moral and intellectual autonomy. 

Let us hope the University of Calgary will continue to fulfil the promise that was defined for it when our departing principal, Dr. [M.G.] Taylor, first came here to guide it to its early maturity; the promise of a courageous, energetic, challenging, outspoken campus that would lead the community in all areas of mature activity.

And let us hope that our graduating class is a class of independent, not a class of sheepish followers, content — now that they have a degree and job — to “follow the crowd,” afraid to request of life and of the mind more than the lowest common denominator. Only if we mobilize our individual experiences, propensities, and gifts, fully and independently will we repay our debt to the institution that is graduating us today, the university that is admitting us into higher education as its representatives. 

Thus, we as graduates of the University of Calgary must continue to follow the example set for us by our alma mater. We must continue to strive toward an intelligent autonomy of thought, autonomy of action, and autonomy of spirit.