The Making of McGill

The Vision of a Scots-Canadian Merchant Prince—and how it was realized

FREDERICK EDWARDS October 15 1929

The Making of McGill

The Vision of a Scots-Canadian Merchant Prince—and how it was realized

FREDERICK EDWARDS October 15 1929

The Making of McGill

The Vision of a Scots-Canadian Merchant Prince—and how it was realized

FREDERICK EDWARDS

THERE must always be beginnings. Sometimes these are far remote from their subsequent mighty growths. McGill University was conceived in a book-lined, candle-lit and woodfire-warmed room in Cornwall, Ontario, one hundred and eighteen years ago. In that room John Strachan, clergyman, scholar, and educator, talked with his guest, who was James McGill, merchant, legislator, soldier and philanthropist. v

The time, almost certainly, was the winter of 18101811. James McGill was then sixty-seven years old, and the Reverend John Strachan, Rector of Cornwall, thirty-three. Both were Scotsmen, and between them many close ties were woven, despite the disparity in their ages. There was an accidental kinship, for John Strachan had married the widow of Andrew McGill, a younger brother of the famous Montrealer. There was the circumstance of their common loyalty to the old land of their birth; and above all there was the mutual love they held for the young land of their adoption, the burning zeal of the Canadian pioneers who wished for this country a brave, fine, complete future among the nations of the earth, and who were prepared to give all they possessed of their talents or their wealth to secure for her the fair destiny which they so ardently desired her to inherit.

James McGill, then, was visiting his kinsman and friend in Cornwall, the home town of John Strachan’s wife, who was also Andrew McGill’s widow. During the long winter evenings they talked gravely together, the older man with a sincere admiration for the younger’s learning and idealism; the young cleric with a high respect for the achievements and the often demonstrated patriotism of the elder statesman. Both were educated men, far above the average of their time, McGill a graduate of Glasgow University, Strachan an honor student from Aberdeen; and the subject of their conversations was education in Canada.

This is no fanciful tale conceived for your amusement. There are records.

On May 31, 1820, seven years after the death of James McGill, John Strachan wrote to friends in Montreal:

“It was, I believe, at Cornwall, during one of the visits which Mr. McGill made to Mrs. Strachan and me, that his final resolution respecting the erection of a College after his name, endowing it, etc., was taken. We had been speaking of several persons who had died in Lower Canada, and had left no memorial of themselves to benefit the country in which they had realized great fortunes. And particularly I mentioned a University, as the English had no seminary where an academical education could be obtained. We had repeated conversations upon the subject, and he departed, determined to do something, and with some inclination to leave twenty instead of ten thousand pounds, together with Burnside, and even to make some preparations before his death; expressing at the same time a wish that.if he did anything, I should take an active part in the proposed College.”

The will of James McGill, which made possible the University now bearing his name, is dated March 8, 1811. It left in trust the sum of £10,000—approximately $50,000—and his Burnside estate of forty-six acres, together with the dwelling-house and other buildings, for the establishment and endowment of a University or College.

There were three stipulations. The University was to be erected on the property which had been James McGill’s home for nearly forty years. One of the Colleges of the proposed University must be called “McGill College;” and the University must be erected and established within ten years of the date of the testator’s death. This last proviso, because of the stubborn stupidity of governments and the greed of certain secondary heirs, caused the fulfilment of the wish which lay closest to James McGill’s patriot heart to be delayed for more than a quarter of a century, and for a while seemed likely to defeat utterly the manifest and clearly declared desire of the dead merchant prince.

Many years of dispute, of divided and directly opposed authority, of legal squabbles in the courts and even before the Privy Council, were to be fought through before McGill University came into its own; but the battle was won at last, and from those winter evening conversations of long ago in the library of John Strachan’s house in Cornwall there grew the McGill of today, standing in the front rank of Canadian educational institutions,

' equipped with buildings, materials, and faculty equal to any similar organization in the world.

James McGill’s dust lies beneath a simple monuin a tiny triangular grass plot, where two diverging paths leave the tree-lined main avenue which leads from broad Sherbrooke Street to the entrance of the Arts Building. This last was the first of the college structures erected under the terms of his will, and, although the old building has been many times extended, most of the original masonry remains in the front wall.

Before his tomb, on either side, are scattered a number of other Faculty buildings surrounding the tree-shaded campus, where walk students whose homes are spread in all corners of the earth. Above it, from the pole which tops the ancient cupola of the Arts Building, flies the University flag of scarlet and white, bearing the familiar College crest, the open book, the twin' crowns, the three heraldic martlets, and the double motto In Domino Confido and Grandescunt Aucta Labore.

So is James McGill’s dream fulfilled and his spirit content.

James McGill, Merchant

THE founder of McGill University was born in Glasgow on October 6th, 1744. After his graduation from Glasgow University he turned his feet westward, as so many adventurous young Scots were doing, and after a brief period in the American colonies, established himself in Montreal, where he became connected with the powerful North-West Company, foremost of Canadian fur-trading corporations. Later he went into business for himself, taking as his partner one Isaac Todd. The firm of McGill and Todd flourished for many years and continued after James McGill’s death.

By the time of the American revolution, James McGill was a leading citizen of Montreal, universally respected and admired. He was one of twelve Montrealers, six British and six French, who, when General Richard Montgomery marched on the town in 1775, signed the articles of capitulation which permitted the peaceful occupation of the area, and so prevented much useless bloodshed. In the first Parliament of Lower Canada, which convened in 1792, he was one of the two representatives of the West Ward of Montreal, and afterward sat in the Legislative Council. During the war of 1812, although too old for active service, he was commissioned a Brigadier-General of Militia, and occupied himself with the administration of the Montreal garrison. He was sixty-nine years old when he died on December 19, 1813.

He married, in December 1776, Marie Charlotte Guillemin, the widow of Joseph A. T. Desrivières, a French-Canadian of Montreal, and the couple lived for the remainder of their lives on the Burnside Estate, occupying the Burnside Manor House.

This property, even then one of the most desirable in the town, ran from the lower slope of Mount Royal, and was bounded, roughly, by the present street lines of Dorchester Street on the south, University Street on the east, and McTavish and Metcalfe Streets on the west. The site of Burnside Manor seems to have been on the east side of the present McGill College Avenue, just north of Burnside Place. The estate derived its name from a little brook, or, in Scots “burn,” which burbled down the mountainside, and, following a course parallel to University Street, cut through the low ground still known to McGill students as “The Hollow”'—now occupied by tennis courts—meandered across Sherbrooke Street beside Burnside Manor, and so on to the river below the city.

Probably James McGill himself had no conception of the magnificent proportions which his gift would assume in the century which was to follow his death. Today the value of the Burnside Estate would be counted in the hundreds of millions. It lies in the heart of the city. The Montreal store of the T. Eaton Company stands on a part of it, as well as scores of smaller business establishments and several theatres. St. Catherine Street bisects it for five blocks, and the Canadian National Railway’s tunnel line pierces Mount Royal under the centre of it, following the direction of McGill College Avenue, which derives its name from the most obvious of sources.

The famous McGill will appointed four executors, the Reverend John Strachan, James McGill’s friend and kinsman, and James Dunlop, John Richardson and James Reid, of Montreal. They were instructed, “as soon as it conveniently can be done after my decease,” to convey the Burnside property to the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning. The endowment fund of ten thousand pounds, with interest to accrue from three years after the date of his death, was to be held in trust by the executors, and paid by them to the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, as soon as the new College should be erected and established,

This corporation had been authorized by Act of Legislature in 1801, and charged with responsibility for all educational affairs in Lower Canada. Obviously it was the proper authority to direct the establishment of the new College. Indeed, under the law, the Royal Institution automatically controlled all funds and properties bequeathed or purchased for educational purposes.

A Much-Disputed Will

THE trouble was that at the time of James McGill’s death, and for many years after, the Royal Institution had no existence save on paper. This was a complication which James McGill could not have foreseen, or certainly the ten-year time limit set for the establishment of the University would not have been written into his will. The circumstance was destined to cause unlimited difficulties for the executors.

With funds derived from Crown Lands the Legislature had created through the Province a number of free schools, as provided in the Act of 1801; but the movement had stopped there. It was not until 1815 that the Home government directed the Provincial authorities to proceed with the election of a Board of Trustees as the Act directed, and it was 1818 before the Board was actually appointed in the persons of the Lord Bishop of Quebec; the Lord Bishop of Montreal; the Chief Justice of Lower Canada; the Speaker of the Legislative Council; and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. Meanwhile five precious years had vanished, of the decade in which the new University must be established under the terms of the will; and exactly no progress had been made.

Further, determined and dangerous opposition to the project was developing from another source. The coheirs were kicking up a fuss, having, reasonably enough, no enthusiasm, whatever for the idea that the rich Burnside property should be taken from them for the merely charitable purpose of establishing a University.

James McGill died without issue; nor had his wife any children by her first marriage. His will, which gave the Burnside estate and the endowment fund to the new College, also provided that until the University was actually established his widow should occupy and enjoy the property. In the event of her decease before the College was established, the estate was to pass on the same terms to one Francis Desrivières, a nephew of the first uncle of Mrs. McGill, who had already benefitted very materially from the McGill connection.

Mrs. McGill died in April, 1818, and the Desrivières family promptly occupied Burnside, as they had a perfect right to do; but the delay in proceeding to the establishment of the University, due entirely to the government’s dilatorines's in appointing Trustees of the Royal Institution, had strengthened the Desrivières claim for permanent possession, and it soon became apparent that the equity of the Royal Institution in the property would be denied by Francis Desrivières.

Transfer of the estate from the executors to the Trustees of the Royal Institution was made, and the deed recorded in August 1820, almost seven years after James McGill’s death. A formal request for delivery of the property was made upon Francis Desrivières. It was promptly denied, and legal issue was joined.

“I should hope,” wrote the exasperated Dr. John Strachan to his fellow executors at this time, “that Mr. Desrivières will have a greater respect for the memory of his great benefactor than to contest a legacy which goes to establish an institution which he had so much at heart.”

Mr. Desrivières had nothing of the kind, and he went right ahead with his suit, which was based on the plea that the College had not been erected—which was true; that no steps had been taken toward that end—which was perilously close to the truth; and that the remaining time was too short to permit compliance with the terms of the will—-which was a fair contention but open to debate.

The Royal Institution was thus placed in a tight corner. It had a claim to a property, but could not obtain possession of that property. It had a claim to an endowment fund, hut could not obtain possession of that fund. It was bound by a legal instrument to establish and erect in three years time a College on a property which it did not own, and to endow that College with funds which it could not touch. Moreover, the corporation possessed no money of its own with which to fight for its rights in the courts.

By means of loans from the Government some money was raised. An application was made for a Charter, which was granted and fully sanctioned by the Grown on March 31, 1821, and this was ; made the basis of the Royal Institution’s case against the Desrivières family. It seemed wise to create at least the skeleton of some sort of a College, and so by 1824, a Principal and four professors had been appointed to entirely non-existent posts in the, as yet, purely imaginary College. None of the four professors ever lectured. They resigned when five years later the University held its formal opening.

. Now the executors made a formal demand upon Francis Desrivières for payment of the £10,000 endowment fund. This also was refused, and so, in December 1821, the executors and the Board of Trustees of the Royal Institution joined in a second suit to compel Desrivières to release the legacy.

The Montreal Court of King’s Bench decided in favor of the Royal Institution in the first case. Desrivières carried an appeal to the Privy Council The dispute as it affected the Burnside estate was not settled until 1828, and it was eight years later, in 1837, that the final decision of the Privy Council turned the $50,000 endowment fund over to the Trustees of the Royal Institution. Twenty-four years had elapsed since James McGill’s death before the monument upon which he had set his heart was assured to his memory. Stupid governments and wilful co-heirs, had between them come perilously close to wrecking his fondest dream.

First Beginnings

rPHE University of McGill College was formally opened on June 24, 1829. The occasion, as described in the issue of the Montreal Gazette of the following Monday had “none of the gaudy appearance and display characteristic of religious or Masonic processions, yet to the mind of the philosopher and friend of education, the simple and appropriate ceremony . presented more charms than if

decked out with all the pageantry and chivalry of romance.”

Burnside Manor was the scene of the ceremonial. It was, in fact, the only building on the estate suited for such a purpose, then and for some time afterward. The Bishops of Quebec and Montreal were present, surrounded by attendant clergy, among them the Reverend G. J. Mountain who had been appointed Principal in the skeleton organization of 1824, and the four lecturers at the Montreal Medical Institution who were destined to play an important part in the infant University’s early years. In this manner, in the house which had been his home, James McGill’s College was dedicated to the cause of higher education.

Beyond the dignified formalities attending the opening, there was one significant circumstance which powerfully influenced the University’s course during the years immediately following. This was the formal affiliation with the new College of i the Montreal Medical Institution, which was swiftly accomplished at a joint meeting of Governors of the University and the lecturers of the Medical Institution.

As was the case with so many other stratagems adopted by the harassed Trustees of the Royal Institution and the executors of James McGill’s will during these exciting days, this affiliation was a move dictated rather by circumstances than by design. It is probable that James McGill had considered the probability that sooner or later the science of medicine would be taught in his College, but he himself was in no sense a medical man or a scientist, and it seems certain that the thought foremost in his mind looked toward the establishment, primarily, of a University which, would specialize in the arts and philosophy— which would, in fact, bestow upon the young men of his adopted land the benisons of such an education as he himself had absorbed at Glasgow University. Actually, posthumous developments which he could not have foreseen contrived to make McGill a Medical School before she was anything else. Her first graduate was granted the degree of Doctor of Medicine and Surgery in 1833, and through the successive years McGill has continued in this tradition to occupy a place among medical schools of the first rank in the western hemisphere.

The Montreal Medical Institution was organized in 1824 by physicians of the staff of the new Montreal General Hospital which had been opened two years previously. An effort in 1826 to obtain a Charter and incorporate its classes had failed, the authorities holding that the Charter could not be granted because the school lacked endowment or foundation, and was not affiliated with any seminary of learning. The enterprise seemed doomed to collapse before it was fairly started, since, having no standing in law, it could not confer degrees.

To meet this situation it occurred to the earnest-minded supporters of the Medical -Institution that an affiliation with the new McGill College was eminently to be desired. To the trustees of the Royal Institution and the Governors of McGill the plan was equally feasible. McGill had a property but no funds; a skeleton Faculty but no students; a building but no equipment to fit it for classes. On the' other hand, the Montreal Medical Institution possessed classrooms, equipment, and qualified lecturers in Medicine. Its only lack was legal status, and this lack McGill College was in a position to supply.

The amalgamation of the two organizations was. quickly effected. Archdeacon Mountain retained his honorary post as principal, but the four professors who had been appointed in the temporary construction of 1824 resigned. In their places Dr. Andrew Fernando Holmes, Dr. William Caldwell, Dr. John Stephenson and Dr. William Robertson were declared incumbents of the vacant chairs. They received no remuneration, their appointments were temporary, and the nature of their respective professorships remained discreetly unidentified; but they were there, and they functioned, and although the degrees which they conferred, on the authority of McGill University, were several times attacked in the courts by rival institutions, their authority was in each case upheld, so that they became in fact the first Medical Faculty of McGill.

After this fashion it came about that the first degree awarded by the new College was granted on May 24, 1833, to William Logie, of Montreal, a graduate of the Medical School of McGill University.

This, was at least, a beginning; but the infant seminary’s troubles were by no means at an end. The Desrivières family remained obdurate in the matter of the endowment fund, and the Colonial Office in England, which exercised a parental control over the new institution, as »it did over the most trivial details of colonial affairs at that time, proved indifferent and procrastinating, to the intense irritation of everyone in Canada concerned with the affairs of the University.

There was a long-drawn-out controversy over proposed amendments to the Charter. This document limited the number of Faculty members to five, one Principal and four professors, and hampered the progress of the College in other directions. Repeated attempts to obtain reasonable amendments met with successive defeats through the stubborn stupidity or the sublime indifference of the bureaucrats of the home government. There were, of course, no cables. Exchange of correspondence between Canada and England was a matter of months, and the dilatory methods of the Colonial Office a cause of constant annoyance.

For example, the Order in Council promulgating the decision which at last ensured the Endowment Fund to the University, was issued in February, 1835, but it was not until the end of May that it was forwarded to Canada. Even then the Desrivières heirs found excuses for .further delay, as a result of which, the long-drawn-out dispute was continued until October, 1837. One cannot avoid a feeling of sympathy for the harassed Governors, who about this time announced their decision to appoint a special agent in London to conduct their business with the Government, adding this tart comment:

"If documents are sent through the Public Offices in Great Britain by way of the Colonial Office, there will be no end to the delay.”

In July, 1835, Principal Mountain, satisfied that matters would progress more smoothly now that the struggle for the endowment fund had been concluded in the University’s favor, resigned his difficult and unremunerative office. Two or three qualified candidates were offered the vacant Principalship, but declined the honor. Finally, the Reverend John Bethune, Rector of Christ Church, Montreal, was prevailed upon to accept a temporary appointment as acting-Principal, with the understanding that when a permanent Principal could be found he would retire, but that he could not be supplanted by any other acting-Principal.

Growing Pains

JOHN BETHUNE was a Canadian of Scottish ancestry, as have been so many great men prominently associated with the history of McGill University. He was born in Williamstown, Glengarry County, Ontario, in January, 1791,and he had been a pupil at Cornwall of the Reverend John Strachan, James McGill’s friend and executor. He did not, however, hold a university degree, and this lack was to make difficulties for him later.

There can be no question of John Be'thune’s zeal for the advancement of McGill College. He was, perhaps, too much a zealot and not sufficiently a diplomat. The evidence shows him as a man firmly fixed in his convictions arid impatient in the face of opposition. For the views of others he had a profound contempt when they differed from his own. Other men, even more highly placed in administrative offices, have suffered from similar temperamental weaknesses.

Acting-Principal Bethune assumed office in 1835. He remained until 1846, when he was ousted by the Colonial Office at the request of Bishop Mountain, his predecessor, who in the meanwhile had become Lord Bishop of Montreal and Principal of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning. It is interesting to note that the action of Queen Victoria which was responsible for the removal of the Acting-Principal was taken on the recommendation of William Ewart Gladstone, then Colonial Secretary, who was later to become one of Britain’s most famous Premiers.

At the time when Dr. Bethune took hold of the reins there existed a dual control of the affairs of the struggling College. The Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning was Trustee of the estate and the endowment fund. The Governors of the University were responsible for the conduct of its affairs and for such matters as discipline and regulations.

During Principal Mountain’s term of office complete harmony had existed between the two Boards, but the arrival of Dr. Bethune quickly disrupted this happy concord, and substituted for it a bitter discord which continued for eleven years—the darkest years in McGill’s history.

The Charter designated the Board of Governors as the Governor of Lower Canada, the. Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, the Bishop of Quebec, the Chief Justice of Montreal, and the Chief Justice of Upper Canada. Of these officials, all except the Chief Justice of Montreal were residents of other cities, and had not the time, even if they had the inclination, to concern themselves closely with University affairs.

, The Principal, t?y the terms of the Charter, was a member of the Board of Governors for such time as he should remain in office, and Dr. Bethune at once assumed this position. The Chief Justice of Montreal at the time was a FrenchCanadian and of the Roman Catholic faith, and therefore reluctant to interfere in the affairs of what was, although professedly non-sectarian, fundamentally a Protestant University. In these circumstances Dr. Bethune, for all practical purposes, was the Board of Governors.

Basically, it appears that the differences between the acting-Principal and the Board of the Royal Institution arose from widely divergent views as to erection of the College buildings which were so urgently needed. The Board was conservative. It declined to sanction any expenditure of the capital of the endow' ment fund, which, at the time of its release by Francis Desrivières, had increased with the interest to £22,000, or about $110,000. It insisted that a start should be made at once, and such classes as were possible held in the old Burnside House.

With this view Dr. Bethune heartily disagreed. Of him today it would have been said that he was no piker. He wanted a complete University and he wanted it at once. Besides, he had established himself in residence in Burnside Manor and he had no intention of giving up that comfortable domicile.

There were other differences, especially with regard to Charter revision, for while both sides were agreed that the old Charter was narrow and hampering, their respective opinions as to the form which the necessary revision should take were as far apart as the poles.

Because of these unamiable relations the progress of the new undertaking was set back fully a decade. The income from the endowment fund and all the properties vested in the Board for the support of the College was only £559 a year. There was no money available to finance buildings or to pay salaries. Several appeals to the Provincial Government for grants to meet ordinary current expenditures were denied, and eventually a handto-mouth scheme of financing was arranged through the sale of twenty-five and a half acres of the Burnside Estate in small lots.

Meanwhile the petty bickerings between the acting-Principal and the Board of the Royal Institution went steadily on. They quarralled over Dr. Bethune’s occupancy of Burnside Manor, over bills for necessary repairs, over the question of rightful ownership of the property, over the new buildings, and over the Charter revision. The sorry squabble came to a head in 1846, when after an appeal from Bishop Mountain asking that the acting-Principal be removed, W. E. Gladstone, the Colonial Secretary, wrote under date of April 3:

“I have, therefore, felt bound to advise Her Majesty to disallow this appointment . '•/ . "in pursuance of the power vested in her; and have only to add the expression of my hope that the Governors will forthwith proceed to replace Dr. Bethune, and that in so doing they will anxiously endeavour to secure the services of a man in all respects qualified for the post.”

So, under fire, Dr. Bethune resigned. He protested the affair to the Colonial office, but his plea for a hearing was ignored. To succeed him the Governors appointed, at ameeting attended by several members of the Royal Institution, including the Governor-General, Edmund A. Meredith, B.A., LL.B., a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, a mathematician of distinction who had for some time been practising law in Montreal. He was to act as Principal and as Lecturer, in Mathematics, and he was to receive no remuneration.

: Although Principal Meredith occupied office for only three years, definite progress was made under his wise guidance. Good feeling was restored as between the Governors and the Royal Institution. The first of the University buildings, now known as the Central Building, which was erected to house the Faculty of Arts, had been opened in 1843, thirty years after the death of the founder, twentytwo years after the establishment of the College by Charter, and fourteen years since the formal opening. The chief difficulty now was the matter of finances,

“A Little Oatmeal”

SURELY no institution in the world today of the wealth and magnitude of McGill University was ever, in its beginnings, afflicted with such desperate poverty as the new College endured during the next few years. When Principal Meredith assumed control of its destinies the University was heavily in debt. There were outstanding liabilities of more than £3,300. Salaries had been in arrears for years. The total revenue was less than £900 a year and current expenses were £500, not counting the usually unpaid salaries.

Through all these monetary difficulties there are recurring incidents demonstrating the desperate expedients to which the authorities were driven. Viewed at this distance, they have a touch of grim humor, although at the time they must have appeared the reverse of comic to the distressed Governors. It was during Dr. Bëthune’s Principalship that one O’Connor, to whom the garden and farm had been leased, ran up a seed bill of three pounds which he was unable to pay. The University was held responsible by the disgruntled creditor, and the matter was finally compromised when O’Connor undertook to cut down apple trees, sell the wood for fuel, and meet the bill from the proceeds. ■

The Governors were constantly in trouble with the neighbors, because the fences had been allowed to fall into disrepair for want of funds to replace them; in consequence of which misfortune cattle roamed ' through, the property at will, wandered into . neighboring estates and damaged crops. It would seem that hardly a day passed which found no irate husbandman, whose land adjoined Burnside, banging on the door of the Manor-to demand compensation for this or that injury.

Consider also the sad plight of Monsieur L. D. Montier, who, in 1846, accepted the post of lecturer in French in return for lodging and fuel, a percentage of the students’ fees, and a promise that as soon as the money became available he would receive a salary pf thirty pounds per annum. Students’ fees were few, and the day when there would be money available for salaries was plainly far distant. Therefore the Governors, by way of compensating their lecturer in French for his

services, permitted him to occupy half an acre of land “in the northeast corner of the College grounds, to pasture his cow and make a garden.” The Montier cow pasture, it would seem, must have occupied the spot where the splendid new Medical Building now stands.

Professors found themselves not only without money, but at times without fuel or candles. The Reverend W. T. Leach, Professor of Classical Literature who had been made Vice-Principal in 1846, was granted land behind the College for a garden, with the proviso that he “would not interfere with the Bursar’s garden.” Professor Leach further eked out his salaryless existence by boarding a number of students who lived in the College.

In 1847, Principal Meredith was offered and accepted the post of Assistant Provincial Secretary, but as the seat of the Government was in Montreal he remained at the head of McGill. Later, when the government moved to Toronto he resigned, but he was persuaded to retain 'his post, at least in name until a successor could be found. He finally withdrew in 1851. Between that year and 1855, when that truly great man, William Dawson, came to inaugurate a new and brighter era for McGill, Vice-Principal Leach and Charles Dewey Day, who, although born in the United States, became a Canadian of sterling quality, between them conducted the affairs of the struggling University. Judge Day came to this task because of his position as president of the Royal Institution for the advancement of Learning, by virtue of which office he was also, under the amended Charter, a Governor of McGill.

At this time the amended Charter had been established and the Rules and Statutes approved by the Crown. Some small grants had been made by the Provincial Legislature after repeated disappointments. The College buildings, long in a disgraceful state of disrepair, had been to some extent rehabilitated. The pressing need was for a Principal—a man who would combine scholarship with administrative ability, who would possess courage, foresight, tact, wisdom and strength far beyond the average equipment of frail humanity; and it was the public view that he should be a Canadian.

It was thought for a while that the Governors were looking to England for their new Principal. There were protests in the Montreal press. “Montreal is not in England, it is in Canada,” wrote one commentator in the Montreal Sun during August 1854. “We have a way of doing things for ourselves. It is not necessary in order rightly to accomplish an end to ask how they do it ‘at home;’ we can find a mode for ourselves. McGill College will never be anything until some exertion is made by those who have control of it. A languid indifference or a sickly half-dead interest will never secure to it a permanency among the institutions of the day.”

This admonition seems to have been thoroughly representative of public opinion, and doubtless this fact had its influence upon the Governors when they finally selected for the office of Principal of McGill, William Dawson, a Canadian of Scots descent who was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, and became one of the greatest educationists Canada has ever produced.

Dawson came to McGill in 1855 and remained until 1893. To his efforts more than to those of any single man the University owes its present proud position. He took it as a weak, sickly infant enterprise burdened with debts, handi capped by lack of funds, struggling against a sense of public mistrust, born of its unhappy early history;1 but with bis coming McGill turned the corner.