Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of McGill University


[This article was written in 1948 by W. Stewart WALLACE. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

McGill University, in Montreal, is one of the oldest and most famous of Canadian universities, and is by far the most important of the privately endowed, as distinct from the state supported, universities in Canada. It owes its origin to James McGill, who died in 1813, and who left the property on which the university now stands, together with the nucleus of an endowment, for the foundation of a college to bear his name. A charter was granted in 1821; but it was not until eight years later that teaching began in the faculties of arts and medicine. The early years of McGill University were years of slow progress. There was litigation over the bequest which founded it; the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, under which it was placed, warred with the governors of the university, who had control of teaching; and it was not until 1843 that the construction of the first building of the university, the Arts Building, was begun. Not indeed until 1855, when Sir William Dawson was appointed principal, did McGill University enter on that phase of growth which has made it one of the great universities of the British Empire. By 1857, as the result of a new charter and concurrent legislation, the members of the Royal Institute became the Board of Governors of the University; and the early period of conflict gave place to one of growth.


Perhaps the most famous of the faculties of McGill University is the School of Medicine . Beginning as the Montreal Medical Institution, which had been formed by physicians practising at the Montreal General Hospital, it became in 1829 the medical faculty of McGill University; and for many years it was the only part of the university which had more than a shadowy, if legal, entity, and had a local habitation, as well as a name. It was, moreover, not until 1872 that the work of the medical faculty was transferred to the McGill campus; and it was an omen of success that this year saw the graduation of the most famous son of the medical faculty of McGill, Sir William Osler. Thereafter it rapidly passed through the stages of a progress which put it in the front rank of the medical schools of North America. To-day [in 1948] it offers a four-year medical course, following three years of preliminary study. The centre of its activities is the Strathcona Medical Building. Nearby the Medical Building are the Pathological Institute, the Biological Building, and the Royal Victoria Hospital , in the last of which a university clinic has been established, and a full-time staff co-operates with the departments of pathology and experimental medicine in teaching clinical medicine. Teaching is also carried on in the Montreal General Hospital . The latest addition to the school is the Neurological Institute, established mainly through the generosity of the Rockefeller Foundation.


Hardly less well known than the medical school is the faculty of engineering. Lectures in engineering were introduced into the Arts faculty at McGill as early as 1856; and out of these has developed a faculty of engineering with a world-wide reputation. In it the student has great advantages from the proximity of many large hydro-electric developments and industrial plants; and the teachers in the faculty are in many cases associated with various engineering companies, and are thus enabled to keep abreast of the most recent methods. Within recent years, the laboratory space and equipment have been enlarged and improved; and the outstanding places which McGill graduates have won in the engineering field testify to the quality of the courses offered.


The oldest of the university buildings is the Arts Building , which was remodelled in 1927. This houses not only the Arts faculty, but also the comparatively new School of Commerce ; and the increase in the number of students has been such in recent years that the available space has been crowded to the limit. To the building has been added recently a magnificent "little theatre", known as Moyse Hall, which has filled a long-felt want. Undergraduate courses leading to the degree of B.A. and B.Sc. are of four years' duration. In both branches of study there is a wide choice of subjects open to students. The School of Commerce offers courses which deal largely with business, economics, and allied subjects, and leads to the degree of B. Com. The courses in Arts and Commerce are open to women, who are instructed with and are on an equal status with the men. The women are connected with the Royal Victoria College, where there are resident quarters, a gymnasium, and other conveniences:


The faculty of law, which is a long-established school in the university, offers a three-year course. Special attention is paid to Roman law, on which the legal system of the province of Quebec is based, and also to commercial and international law. Many of Canada's leading statesmen, both past and present, have received their training in this faculty.


The faculty of music, in connection with which there is a Conservatorium of Music, gives junior as well as senior courses leading to a degree in this subject. Music plays an important part in university life at McGill, particularly among the undergraduates, who have a large number of groups and societies devoted to the study and practice of music.


One of the more recent additions to the university is the faculty of dentistry, with courses ,leading to the degree of D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery). The headquarters of the faculty are in the medical building; and there is a well-equipped clinic at the Montreal General Hospital .


A number of higher degrees are offered by the faculty of graduate studies and research. These include the degrees of M.A., M.Sc., M.Sc.A., M.Com., Ph.D., D.Sc., Litt.D., D.C.L., and Mus. Doc.


Among other schools and departments in the university are the School of Graduate Nurses, which gives advanced courses in hospital, community, and public health training; the School of Physical Education , the only one of its kind in Canada ; and the Library School, which gives training in library science.


At Macdonald College, situated at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, 20 miles west of Montreal, are housed the faculty of agriculture, the school of household science, and the school for teachers, all of which are directly connected with, and part of, McGill University. The faculty of agriculture was one of the first schools of its kind to be established in Canada ; and it has always been noted, not only for the splendid facilities it offers to students, but also for the attention paid to research problems. In recent years the school has attracted numbers of students from various parts of Great Britain, who have been sent out to Canada in selected groups. An important addition to the school in recent years has been the Institute of Parasitology, an undertaking carried on in a building of its own at Macdonald College, under the direction of a committee representing the Dominion and provincial governments and the university. Already the work done at the Institute promises to reduce greatly the ravages caused by parasites among the domestic animals and fowls of Canada.


The several libraries of the university now contain over half a million volumes, including several thousand periodicals, serials, and government documents; and it contains a number of valuable manuscripts relating to early Canadian history, and especially the history of the fur-trade, as well as a considerable collection of maps and photographic reproductions. McGill possesses also several museums. There is the McCord National Museum, containing exhibits of historical interest; the Peter Redpath Museum, which contains specimens of entomological, geological, and historical value; the Strathcona Museum, which is partly general and partly medical; and the pathological, architectural, botanical, and hygiene museums.


Undergraduate activities at McGill are controlled by a central council of students, who have their own Union building and recreation rooms. There are debating leagues, dramatic societies, an undergraduate' newspaper (McGill Daily), and various other student activities. There is a Hall of Residence for men at Macdonald College , and a few years ago one was erected in Montreal. Women live at the Royal Victoria College in Montreal and in a Hall at Macdonald College. The remainder of the students in Montreal live in large boarding and fraternity houses in the neighbourhood of the campus. Every opportunity is given to the students to take part in sports, both in winter and in summer. McGill teams compete in all branches of athletics; and the university is well equipped with playing fields, notable among these being the Percival Molson Stadium.


McGill University is under the control of a board of governors. As members of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning with a provincial charter these are responsible for the financial control of the large endowments which have resulted from the benefactions of James McGill, Lord Strathcona, Sir William Macdonald, and others. Educational policy is under the control of "The Governors, Principal, and Fellows of McGill University," consisting of the same persons operating under a royal charter.


The principals of McGill have been the Rev. George Jehoshaphat Mountain (1824-35), the Rev. John Bethune (1835-46), Edmund A: Meredith (184651), Sir William Dawson (1855-93), Sir William Peterson (1895-1919), Sir Arthur Currie (1920-33), A. E. Morgan (1935-37), Lewis W. Douglas (1938-39), Frank C. James (1940- ).


For an account of the history of McGill University, see Cyrus Macmillan, McGill and its story ( London , 1921).


Source : W. Stewart WALLACE, "McGill University", in The Encyclopedia of Canada,   Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 184-186.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College