These 20 thinkers brought their stunning intellect to U of T’s table and enlivened the world of ideas
Northrop Frye (1912-1991; BA 1933 Victoria)
The first time world-renowned literary critic Northrop Frye came to Toronto – where he would spend most of his life – was in 1929, as a 17-year-old typing contestant. A shy, awkward Moncton high school graduate trained briefly in business skills, Frye didn’t win, but he liked the big city well enough to stay on, enrolling that same year at Victoria College, University of Toronto. The obvious choice for Methodist-raised Frye, Vic became his intellectual home; 61 years later, in the fall of 1990, he was still there, teaching his famous “Bible” course for the last time before his death the following January.
A brilliant undergraduate, Frye stood first in his class for each of the four years of his honours philosophy and English course. Graduating in 1933, he decided to enter the United Church ministry, but it was a mistake. Circuit riding in Depression-wracked Saskatchewan in the mid-1930s was not for him. He went to Oxford, graduating in 1939 with first class honours in English, then accepted a teaching appointment back at Vic, and never left his alma mater again.
At Oxford, Frye’s intellect had been fired by the poetry of the wild and, to many at the time, incomprehensible English 18th-century poet William Blake. In 1947, Frye made his professional reputation with Fearful Symmetry, a definitive study of Blake’s prophetic poetry. In it, he showed that Blake’s use of symbolism was deliberate, based on Milton and the Bible, and clearly not the work of a madman. In Anatomy of Criticism (1957), he theorized that all literature is bound together by a verbal universe of repeated archetypes, symbolism and rhetoric. These works garnered Frye a large academic following, and in 1951 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Over the next 40 years, until his death in 1991, Frye was one of the most decorated and influential university professors in the country, becoming Vic’s chancellor in 1978, and significantly influencing English curricula in Canadian schools and universities, with ideas summarized in On Education, published in 1988. He also lectured or taught at more than 100 universities worldwide and was awarded countless honorary degrees.
Though long removed from his tenure as a minister, Frye never surrendered his Christian sensibility. As one commentator noted recently upon the publication of Frye’s journals, he was “happy to do the Lord’s work.” For most of Frye’s lifetime, the best corner of the Lord’s vineyard was U of T.
Kathleen Coburn (1905-1991; BA 1928 Victoria, MA 1930)
Sometimes, a chosen subject grows to inhabit the mind and life of a scholar to the point where a kind of mutual possession seems to occur. That’s what happened with Kathleen Coburn, a longtime U of T English professor, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the Romantic poet and critic.
That, at least, was the surmise of A.S. Byatt, whose Booker Prize-winning novel, Possession: A Romance (1990), was inspired by “watching that great Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, circumambulating the catalogue” at the British Library. In “Choices: On the Writing of Possession” (1991), Byatt wrote, “She has given all her life to his thoughts. And then I thought, ‘she has mediated his thoughts to me … Does he possess her, or does she possess him?’ ”
Coburn may not have given quite all her life to Coleridge, but she gave more than 60 of her 86 years to him. Born in 1905 in the small Ontario town of Stayner, Coburn completed her BA and MA degrees at U of T, then earned a BLitt at Oxford, where her interest in Coleridge was cemented when she viewed the poet’s notebooks on shelves in the home of one of his descendants. After returning home to teach at Victoria College, U of T, and with the co-operation of the Coleridge estate, Coburn began the task of preparing the notebooks for publication. Eventually, they were published in four volumes from 1957 to 1990. (A fifth, and final, volume will be published in the fall.) She was also the general editor of the first 14 volumes of Coleridge’s collected works, published between 1969 and 1990. Apart from these two major tasks, Coburn wrote and edited a number of books on Coleridge, including In Pursuit of Coleridge (1977), the story of her many scholarly adventures.
Once when asked, “How on earth have you stood Coleridge all these years?” Coburn replied that he became more interesting to her the longer she studied him. “More lonely, more rebellious, more skeptical and more deeply human.” Possession? A.S. Byatt was probably right.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
For Marshall McLuhan, communications theorist and media guru, the height of fame came in a few seconds of screen time in Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall. In it, Allen’s character, the neurotic Alvy Singer, finds himself standing in line for a movie while enduring the remarks of some Manhattan know-it-all on the topic of McLuhan and television. Just then, out from the corner of the screen steps McLuhan to deflate the pseudo-intellectual with the stinging words: “You know nothing of my work.” McLuhan may as well have been speaking to most of the population, for his reputation rests in part on his surpassing quotability – “the medium is the message,” most famously – not on knowledge of the breadth of his work. Still, his cameo appearance in the film perfectly captured McLuhan as media sage.
Born in Edmonton in 1911, McLuhan moved with his family to Winnipeg and later graduated from the University of Manitoba with BA and MA degrees in English and philosophy. Brilliant and precocious, he earned a PhD in literature from Cambridge in 1943, then spent the remainder of the war years teaching in Canada and the United States. In 1946, he accepted a position in the English department at U of T, where, except for a stint as Schweitzer Chair at New York’s Fordham University in 1967-68, he remained for 34 years until his death in 1980.
McLuhan’s steady intellectual endeavours during the 1950s yielded a stunning output in the following decade, including The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), The Medium Is the Message (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968). In these writings, McLuhan developed his ideas on communications, arguing that it is the way information is structured and relayed that determines perceptions of reality. His famous distinction between “hot” and “cool” media – between print and radio, for example, and telephone and television – built on this underlying idea, because each form engages the senses differently. The medium becomes the message because of what it elicits in sensory perception.
From his redoubt at U of T’s Centre for Culture and Technology, McLuhan’s influence became worldwide, encompassing everything from Playboy magazine to an NBC television special. Today, the McLuhan Program of Culture and Technology continues to perpetuate his name and ideas. Wired magazine, probably the most influential digital-age popular publication, has proclaimed him its “patron saint.”
Harold Innis (1894-1952)
When Harold Innis returned to Canada from the First World War and headed south to the University of Chicago for a PhD in political economy, he had a clear purpose in mind. The war had marked Innis indelibly, and confronted him with the nature of national culture. How, in the face of powerful empire-building states such as Britain, the United States and Germany, did smaller, colonial nations such as Canada develop a sense of nationhood?
In his doctoral thesis, Innis examined the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, hardly an obvious topic for a Chicago PhD in 1919. Nevertheless, it was the first step toward 30 years of brilliant academic work at U of T. Innis joined the political economy department in 1920, where he was dismayed, though not surprised, to find that his mainly British and American colleagues applied faulty models to the Canadian economy. In response, he wrote The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), in which he offered the staple thesis of Canadian economic development (fur, fish, timber, etc.). He also rejected the ideas that Canada had no inherent economic logic and that its political boundaries were artificial. The country’s economic development, he argued, had yielded appropriate borders. Innis didn’t stop there. In 1940 he published The Cod Fisheries, which elaborated on Canada’s historic connection to Europe.
During the 1940s, Innis’s ongoing interest in Canada’s place in the Western world spurred him to investigate communications. Concurrently, he served as head of U of T’s department of political economy, and then, beginning in 1947, as dean of the graduate school. In 1950, he published Empire and Communications, a treatise on the ways empires perpetuate themselves, and how they are remembered. For example, the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt are “time-biased media” because they continue to transmit messages about the nature of Egyptian society after the passage of millennia. Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement, “the medium is the message,” finds its origins here.
Innis died in 1952 at 58. His oeuvre, though deep, was incomplete. But he remains one of the most original Canadian thinkers, and in his spiritual heirs – such as McLuhan and Wired magazine – Innis’s expansive thinking lives on.
Margaret Atwood (1939-; BA 1961 Victoria)
Is there a brighter alumni star in the University of Toronto firmament than Margaret Atwood? Internationally acclaimed author, winner of numerous awards – including the Booker Prize in 2000 for her latest novel, The Blind Assassin – poet, scriptwriter, defender of writers as one-time president of PEN Canada, mentioned perennially for the Nobel Prize for literature … just reviewing Atwood’s lifetime achievements – thus far – could fill volumes.
Born in Ottawa in 1939, Atwood spent much of her youth in Toronto, graduating from Victoria College, University of Toronto, in 1961 with a BA in English. An MA from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts followed, then teaching stints at various Canadian universities. In 1966, she burst upon the nascent Canadian literary scene with The Circle Game, which captured the Governor General’s Award for poetry. It was quickly followed by such works as The Edible Woman (1969), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and Power Politics (1971), which established her as a feminist writer of great perception.
Internationally, Atwood’s reputation was solidified with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a harrowing story of an anti-female dystopia set in a nuclear-ravaged future. Critically acclaimed and a bestseller, it brought Atwood her first Booker Prize nomination and was adapted for the screen, receiving the full Hollywood treatment.
Since then, Atwood’s literary output has continued unabated. Four more novels, two books for children, poetry, short fiction – the prodigious amount of work emanating from her house in Toronto’s fashionable Annex neighbourhood must owe something to early mentor Northrop Frye. In Gladstonian style, Frye used to record in his diaries whether “I’ve wasted the day or not.” But while Atwood might have Protestant-like work habits like Frye, her whimsical sense of humour speaks to something else – an intuitive understanding of the Canadian character. As she remarked a few years ago upon receiving an honorary degree at Oxford, a Canadian is the one who, standing alongside fellow award nominees, looks first to the right and then to the left when the winner’s name – his or her own – is called, just to make sure the judges didn’t make a mistake. Atwood should know. She’s stood there enough times herself.
Robertson Davies (1913-1995)
Canada’s greatest man of letters, Robertson Davies, master of Massey College in the University of Toronto for 20 years and internationally renowned writer, showed little early indication of uncommon brilliance. Born in 1913 into a newspaper-owning family in the southwestern Ontario town of Thamesville, he lived a peripatetic youth before arriving at Queen’s University in Kingston as a “special student” – special because, unable to meet the undergraduate entrance requirement in math, he was ineligible to earn a degree. Luckily, Oxford, where he went a few years later, took a different view of such things, and he graduated with a BLitt in 1938. His thesis, “Shakespeare’s Boy Actors,” was published in 1939, and for the next year Davies hung about the London theatre scene, finding work at the Old Vic Repertory Company.
In 1940, newly married, Davies returned home, serving as literary editor of Saturday Night magazine for two years before embarking on a quarter-century as editor, then publisher of The Peterborough Examiner. The small-town boy with newspapering in his blood had returned to what he knew best. During these years Davies began writing humorous essays under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks, published a troika of novels (the Salterton trilogy) and in 1960 began teaching literature courses at U of T. A few years later, Vincent Massey came calling, searching for the perfect person to be the founding master of the college that would be his family’s namesake. In 1963 Davies moved into the master’s lodgings on Devonshire Place, where he would remain until 1981.
In the years following his retirement from Massey College, Davies – now into his 70s – became one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. In novel-writing, he had found his singular calling, and with the publication of What’s Bred in the Bone in 1985, he secured a worldwide readership. He published his final novel, The Cunning Man, the year before his death in 1995.
It wasn’t just his varied body of work that distinguished Davies as Canada’s foremost literary figure. He looked and sounded the part, too. With flowing silver hair, long beard and jaunty hat, Davies remained a man of the theatre to the last.
Eric Arthur (1898-1982)
Architect, author and Antipodean, Eric Arthur spent most of his professional life at the University of Toronto. Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1898, like many colonials in those days he attended university overseas in Liverpool, England, after serving in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade during the First World War. Arthur came to Canada in 1923 to take up an appointment as a professor of architecture at U of T and held the position until 1966. Almost immediately, he became active beyond the classroom, helping found the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in 1932.
Arthur’s deep lifelong interest in preserving and restoring the architecture of his adopted home culminated in the publication of Toronto: No Mean City in 1964. Almost 40 years later, it remains a standard text on the architectural history of Toronto. Arthur was instrumental in rescuing Toronto from its garrisoned past as “Muddy York” and infusing it with a sense of pride about many of its 19th-century buildings. Chief among these is St. Lawrence Hall, a gem dating from 1850 located on King Street in the heart of Toronto. Arthur chaired the committee that oversaw its restoration in the mid-1960s. He served also as chair of the jury for the International Competition for City Hall and Square in Toronto, which resulted in a spectacular piece of modern architecture for the city when it opened in 1965.
Few Canadian architects in the 20th century had a more important public role than Arthur, nor did any do more to champion the emergence of modern Canadian architects, while making the case for protecting heritage buildings. In semi-retirement throughout the 1970s, he remained active in Canadian architectural issues. Arthur died in 1982. Recently, U of T’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design opened the Eric Arthur Gallery, a wonderfully whimsical glass structure that hugs one wall of the faculty building. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition showcased Arthur’s work as both historical preservationist and modern innovator.
Donald Creighton (1902-79; BA 1925 Victoria)
“In those days they came usually by boat.” So begins Donald Creighton’s Governor General’s Award-winning, two-volume biography of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, published in the 1950s. In thus describing the arrival of 19th-century immigrants to Canada, Creighton marked himself as a historian committed to history as a literary art. He was also devoted to creating a professional, written record of Canadian history, separate from that of the mother countries, Britain and France.
Born in Toronto in 1902, Creighton studied English and history at Victoria College, U of T. Upon graduation in 1925, he went to Oxford and read for a second BA. Creighton planned to study and do original research on the history of the French Revolution, but at Oxford, the young scholar found himself drawn to Canadian history, at a time when, professionally, the field was scarcely recognized. Insofar as it did exist, Canadian history was mainly bound up in the history of the British Empire. But the more Creighton thought about it – Canada’s heroic contribution to the First World War, the country’s resistance to the relentlessly expansive pressure of the United States, the accommodation within of French and English – the more he became convinced that his own nation’s history was worthy of serious intellectual pursuit. And so, despite lack of interest, especially at home, Creighton began to recreate himself as a historian of Canada. Hired by U of T in 1927, he would move from lecturer to professor to chair of the history department to professor emeritus, in a storied career that spanned more than half a century.
Central to Creighton’s conceptualizing of Canadian history was the “Laurentian thesis,” the argument that Canada made sense both politically as a counterpoint to the U.S., and economically because of the St. Lawrence River, which bisects the eastern part of the continent. In time, Creighton became a fierce Canadian nationalist, denouncing both regionalism and continentalism, views that gained currency in the heady years leading up to the country’s 1967 centennial. Creighton’s work won him acclaim and awards at home, and abroad he became Canada’s best-known historian, winning Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Nuffield Foundation fellowships.
By the end of his life in 1979, Creighton’s conservative, centralist and anti-continentalist views had gone out of fashion, something he resented greatly. But there’s no disputing his broader achievement in cementing the foundation for the discipline of Canadian history.
Sir Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973; BA 1915)
Sir Ernest MacMillan, eminent conductor, educator and musician, made his mark earlier than most people realize as a musical prodigy. By the age of 10 he had composed several songs and played the organ for 3,000 people at Toronto’s Massey Hall.
Born in the Toronto suburban community of Mimico in 1893, MacMillan took musical studies at Edinburgh University and Oxford as a teenager while earning a BA in history from U of T. During a summertime visit to Germany in 1914, he found himself trapped when war broke out. Interned in a prison camp as an enemy alien for the next four years, the young MacMillan overcame the drawbacks of life behind barbed wire to make stunningly good use of his time. He composed music to accompany Swinburne’s “Ode to England.” The “secular oratorio,” as he called it, would earn him a doctorate in music from Oxford in 1918. But he also helped produce a number of musical and operatic productions, including a performance of The Mikado in 1916 for American Embassy officials, not long before the United States entered the war.
At war’s end, MacMillan returned to Canada. A rich assortment of compositions followed, many of which appeared in his famous Canadian Song Book (1937). In 1926, he became principal of the Toronto (later Royal) Conservatory of Music, followed the next year with the concurrent deanship of U of T’s Faculty of Music, which he held until 1952. In 1931, the indefatigable MacMillan began a 25-year run as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; during the last 14 of those years he also conducted the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. In 1935, King George V rewarded him with a knighthood.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, MacMillan toured widely as guest conductor with major orchestras in the United States, Brazil and Australia, and was especially happy to bring the works of Canadian composers to an international audience. Including his childhood accomplishments, MacMillan’s career spanned almost every one of his 79 years – virtually all of them note perfect.
Vincent Massey (1887-1967; BA 1910 UC)
“More British than the British,” said Vincent Massey’s critics, who accused him of being a preening anglophile. There’s little doubt that Massey loved pomp and circumstance, but it’s equally clear that a stout Canadian heart beat inside his leonine frame. After graduating from University College in 1910 with a bachelor’s degree in history and English, Massey earned a second degree in history from Balliol College, Oxford, where he absorbed the Oxonian style for which he would become – sometimes unpopularly – known. A stint teaching history at U of T was followed by service in the First World War.
As scion of the Massey-Harris Company, Canada’s farm implements giant, Massey had to help take care of business, but he was no budding captain of industry; his heart was moved by education, culture and the arts. Beginning in 1911, he had spearheaded the endowment and construction of Hart House at U of T, the first major project in a half-century’s worth of philanthropy. Professionally, he embarked on a diplomatic career, serving as Canadian minister to Washington and as Canada’s high commissioner to London. In 1952, near the conclusion of a six-year term as U of T’s chancellor, and after chairing a landmark royal commission on the arts in Canada, Massey became the country’s first native-born governor general.
Massey’s departure from Rideau Hall seven years later, in 1959, marked his formal retirement, but in the last years of his life he reprised his Hart House experience. He used a large amount of capital from the family-endowed Massey Foundation to establish Massey College at U of T, a graduate college modern in style, but modelled on what he had known at Oxford. Massey died in 1967, leaving behind a varied and outstanding legacy that continues to have a significant impact on Canada’s university and cultural life.
Sir Frederick Banting (1891-1941; MB 1916, MD 1922)
If ever there was a small-town Canadian boy who made good, it was Fred Banting of Alliston, Ontario. His discovery of insulin in 1921, with its power to control diabetes mellitus, resulted in Canada’s first Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine two years later. But the fame and honours that followed after he and his colleagues isolated the internal secretion of the pancreas in the winter of 1921-22 could not have been predicted. The youngest of six children born into a farm family in 1891, Banting did poorly in high school, but managed to scrape into divinity at U of T, only to fail his first year. Undeterred, the young Banting transferred to medicine, graduating in 1916 with a transcript of which he could be proud. Immediately, he reported for duty with the Canadian Army Medical Corps and served in France till the end of the First World War, where he was wounded in battle and decorated for valour.
On his return, Banting trained as an orthopedic surgeon and taught part-time at the University of Western Ontario while establishing a general practice in London. But an innate restlessness, no doubt heightened by his tour of duty in the war, drew him inexorably to medical research. On the evening of Oct. 31, 1920, while reading an article in a medical journal, Banting began to consider isolating insulin, the name another scientist had given the pancreatic hormone, and thereby control the metabolism of sugar.
Confident he was onto something significant in diabetes research, Banting approached professor of physiology J.J.R. Macleod, about obtaining lab space. In May 1921, Banting and his medical-student assistant, Charles Best, got to work in their garret in the old Faculty of Medicine building (where the Medical Sciences Building now stands, across from Convocation Hall). After months of intense work and many sharp exchanges between Banting and Macleod, success was achieved. Once insulin hit the market, Banting was elevated to hero status. He was elected to the newly established Banting and Best Chair of Medical Research at U of T in 1923, given a life annuity of $7,500 per year – a tidy sum in those days – by Mackenzie King’s government, and, in 1934, knighted by King George V. During Banting’s rather short lifetime (he died, at 49, in a plane crash in Newfoundland in 1941), he was judged Canada’s most famous citizen by a number of magazine polls. Not bad for a farm boy.
John Polanyi (1929-)
In 1929, during the Weimar Republic, Germany was roiling with domestic turmoil and economic instability brought on by the stock market crash and the attendant miseries of the worldwide Depression. Not a pleasant time or place to live – but in that year John Polanyi, future University of Toronto chemist and Nobel Prize winner, was born to Hungarian parents in Berlin. His father, Michael, was a well-known expatriate scientist and philosopher, who, like many other members of the professoriate, fled Germany with his family in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. The family settled in England, where Polanyi, then four, was educated. In 1949, he graduated with a BSc degree from Manchester University, and three years later earned his PhD from the same institution.
The early 1950s were good years for young scientists with valuable skills and a willingness to relocate. The booming North American economy beckoned, and Polanyi left for Canada in 1952 to take up a post-doctoral fellowship with the National Research Council in Ottawa. After two years he headed south to Princeton and a research associateship, then in 1956 received an offer from the University of Toronto to join the department of chemistry. He’s been there ever since, achieving the honour of University Professor in 1974.
In an age of intense academic specialization, John Polanyi is a public intellectual, commenting forcefully on a number of issues, notably the terrors of nuclear war and the necessity of rational nuclear disarmament. Within his own area of scientific specialization, chemical physics, Polanyi’s groundbreaking work was rewarded in 1986 with the Nobel Prize for chemistry. It was a long time coming. Back in 1958 he had discovered that newly formed molecules emit infrared radiation. Building on this discovery in subsequent years, Polanyi was able to expand the boundaries of infrared chemiluminescence and the nature of chemical transformations.
A fellow of numerous august scientific societies, Polanyi has been awarded more than two dozen honorary degrees and many prizes. For U of T, there have been few scientists better known worldwide since Frederick Banting.
Sir Daniel Wilson (1816-1892)
Sir Daniel Wilson, the University of Toronto’s most important – and probably its most interesting – figure as it developed over the latter half of the 19th century, had an academic career that spanned the disciplines of English, history, archeology, ethnology and geology. Energetic and ambidextrous (seemingly so that he could work twice as fast to accomplish all that needed to be done), he was consumed by scholarly and scientific questions, but also turned his hand to administrative tasks. He served as president of both University College and U of T (for a time concurrently) and battled constantly to ensure the university’s independence and secularization in the face of governmental and religious interference.
“Sir Dan,” as he came to be known, was born in Edinburgh in 1816. Educated there, he followed various pursuits including studying art with William Turner and writing a history of Oliver Cromwell and his times. In 1853 he moved to Canada to take up an appointment as professor of English and history at the not-yet-constructed University College. Typically able to prove his worth outside the classroom, too, Wilson helped design UC, but that building was partly destroyed by fire in 1890.
In the high Victorian years, marked by the so-called “crisis of faith” induced significantly by Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, Wilson became a leading Canadian interpreter of the theory of natural selection. In 1862, three years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Wilson produced his two-volume opus, Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and New World. In it, he accepted the extension of geological time and the evolution of species, but rejected natural selection on the grounds – mostly religious – that there are innate differences between humans and animals.
Later, Wilson helped found the Royal Society of Canada, for a time serving as its president, and rather grudgingly, given his longstanding opposition to denominationalism, acceded to U of T’s federation act of 1887, which paved the way for a number of religious colleges to be placed under the university’s umbrella in succeeding years.
In what little time he had away from the university, Canada’s vast and accessible wilderness inspired Wilson to pick up his paintbrush, and he became an accomplished watercolourist. Sir Daniel died in 1892, just after his beloved UC was rebuilt following the fire.
Tak Mak (1946-)
It’s not every day that members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family board a jet to welcome a visiting scientist to the desert kingdom. But that’s what happened to Tak Mak, professor of immunology at the University of Toronto, back in 1995. Mak, along with his late wife, Shirley, was there to begin a week-long visit, during which he would receive the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine. Mak is used to receiving prizes, but the Saudi Arabian experience – “we were treated like royalty the whole time” – stands out.
As a top-tier medical researcher, Mak also stands out. Born in China in 1946, he grew up in Hong Kong, where his family had settled before the communists took power on the mainland. In the early 1960s he left home to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned BSc and MSc degrees. Then it was on to the University of Alberta to study the virus mengo encephalomyelitis, which had captured his attention during his master’s program. Upon receiving his PhD in 1972, Mak headed for U of T, where – except for a year at the University of Wisconsin – he has been ever since.
Over the next 12 years Mak worked on various projects, but the one central to his research bore fruit spectacularly in 1984, when he and his collaborators published a paper in Nature detailing their findings on T-cell receptors. Mak’s work illuminated the ways in which T-cells, a key component of the body’s immune system, recognize and combat invaders such as viruses, bacteria and oncogenes (cancer). “Nobody knew what the receptor looked like or how it did its job,” recalls Mak. Now they did, and with this discovery began a wave of professional recognition. Mak was designated a University Professor by U of T. Then came the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the National Cancer Institute of Canada’s Robert L. Noble Prize, the Faisal prize, the Novartis Prize in Immunology and – along with Mark Davis, an immunology professor at Stanford University in California – the Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation. Most important, however, was the decision taken by AMGEN Inc., one of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical firms, to invest $150 million to establish a research institute affiliated with U of T and the Ontario Cancer Institute, Princess Margaret Hospital, with Mak as director.
Mak’s devotion to unlocking the secrets of the immune system is tireless. “It is perhaps the most intriguing and intricate cellular network in the body,” he says. If he succeeds in solving the deadly puzzle of cancer, it would make the royal treatment in Saudi Arabia look like a warm-up act.
Helen Sawyer Hogg (1905-1993)
The University of Toronto has a long association with astronomy, from the establishment of the Stewart Observatory on the St. George campus in the mid-19th century to Ian Shelton’s 1987 discovery, at the university’s former observatory in Chile, of a supernova.
But no one exemplifies that association better than Helen Sawyer Hogg. She spent almost 60 years at U of T, starting as a research assistant in the astronomy department in 1936, to which her husband, Frank Hogg, had been appointed, and culminating as professor emeritus from 1976 until her death in 1993. In her work, Sawyer Hogg concentrated on globular clusters of stars, in the process discovering hundreds of variable stars and cataloguing and publishing information about them in three editions. Over the course of her career she took more than 2,000 photographs and published more than 200 scientific papers. In the international astronomical community, hers was the face of Canadian astronomy.
Born in 1905 in Lowell, Mass., Sawyer Hogg received her PhD from Radcliffe in 1931 and became one of the first female PhD holders in astronomy in North America. After a move to Victoria, where her husband’s willingness to act as a chaperone allowed her to volunteer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, she and Frank moved to Toronto, and six years later, in 1941, she was appointed to U of T’s astronomy department. Sawyer Hogg also took a keen interest in educating the general public about the heavens, and for 30 years – 1951 to 1981 – wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Star. In 1976 she published the highly popular The Stars Belong to Everyone. In 1967, Sawyer Hogg was the first Canadian to receive the prestigious Rittenhouse Medal of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. She was a companion of the Order of Canada and the recipient of many honorary degrees. The observatory at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa is dedicated to her.
As one of Canada’s leading astronomers for most of the second half of the 20th century, Sawyer Hogg was integral in shaping the discipline in this country and giving it a public profile. As a young woman, “the glory of the spectacle” of an eclipse drew her to astronomy. Nothing ever pushed her away.
John Tuzo Wilson (1908-1993; BA 1930 Trinity)
For a man whose impressive intellectual breadth included understanding the geomorphology of mountains, it is fitting that John Tuzo Wilson, the eminent U of T geophysicist, could point to Mount Tuzo in the Rockies. It was named for his mother, Henrietta Tuzo, who along with his father, was a dedicated mountain climber. Born in Ottawa in 1908, Wilson was the first student to take a BA in geophysics at U of T. Then it was off to Cambridge, compliments of the Massey Foundation, for a second bachelor’s degree, and then to Princeton, where he earned a PhD in 1936. In that year he began working full time for the Geological Survey of Canada. The arrival of war in 1939 changed everything, however, and Wilson embarked on what would become seven years of service in the Canadian Army.
With the war behind him, Wilson returned to his alma mater, where he would remain as professor of geophysics until 1974. An enormous amount of work was crammed into these years, especially in the area of plate tectonics, on which he became a world authority. He was very much the public intellectual, too, serving on a number of boards and councils, including the presidency of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. At U of T, he was principal of Erindale College from 1967 to 1974. Wilson then retired from U of T, but the word was almost meaningless to him. He took up the post of director general of the Ontario Science Centre until 1985, taught part time as a distinguished lecturer and then professor emeritus at U of T, and even served for three years as chancellor of York University.
Wilson personified the classical ideal of keen mind and active body, and so we have a snapshot of him in 1935 making the first ascent of Mount Hague, at 12,328 feet one of the highest mountains in Montana. Then we see him in the air in 1946, only the second Canadian to fly over the North Pole. He aimed to reach the same heights as an author, writing books on the Middle Kingdom such as Unglazed China (1973). In Wilson, U of T had an adventurous scholar whose professional impact was immense. Much like a mountain, one might say.
George Paxton Young (1818-89)
The credit for Ontario’s public primary school system goes mainly to Egerton Ryerson, that staunch Victorian Methodist. But the province’s high school system owes almost as much to George Paxton Young, Presbyterian and longtime philosopher at University College, University of Toronto. Born into a family of Church of Scotland clergymen in 1818, Paxton Young studied at Edinburgh University and was ordained in the free Church of Scotland.
In 1850, he received the important appointment of minister of Knox Church in Hamilton, Canada West (Ontario). But Paxton Young was not satisfied with being only a pastor; his questing mind, forged in the hothouse of Edinburgh’s philosophical traditions, sought further goals. In 1853, he was appointed professor of philosophy and religion at Knox College. There he remained for 11 years until resigning from both Knox and the Presbyterian ministry in 1864 because of a 19th-century-style set-piece dilemma. His commitment to Presbyterian creeds had waned in light of his dependence upon reason in guiding human affairs, and this new theological position was in conflict with the Church. And so at Ryerson’s behest, he rechannelled his energies, becoming Ontario’s inspector of grammar schools. The reports Paxton Young wrote over the next four years were models of enlightened thinking and did much to push the provincial government toward the creation of a more uniform high school curriculum. In 1868, Knox College reconsidered and Paxton Young returned, but not for long. Three years later he left to become professor of logic, metaphysics and ethics at the non-denominational UC. There, his influence on students was almost as important as that of his better-known colleague, Sir Daniel Wilson.
Paxton Young’s advocacy of an idealism infused by Christianity but temporal in outlook had great appeal to students whose hearth and home – the Protestant Christianity of Ontario – was under severe attack by rationalists. Paxton Young, far-sighted school inspector, noted scholar and legendary teacher, remained in the classroom until his death in 1889.
Bora Laskin (1912-84; BA 1933 UC, MA 1936)
In 1949, Bora Laskin, one of the best legal minds ever produced at the University of Toronto, returned to his alma mater after a few years of teaching at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Osgoode Hall. In that year U of T reconstituted the way it taught law, launching a professional law school that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. No one, apart from founding dean Cecil “Caesar” Augustus Wright, was more important in the creation of the law school than Laskin, whose name adorns its library.
Laskin was born in Fort William (Thunder Bay), Ontario, in 1912. In his late teens, he headed south to U of T, where over the next six years he earned BA and MA degrees. He then took an LLB at Osgoode Hall, followed by an LLM at Harvard. Throughout a long academic career, which began at U of T in 1940 and ended there in 1965, he gained a reputation as a strong civil libertarian and a brilliant legal scholar. His work in constitutional and labour law was essential to the development of Canadian jurisprudence in these areas, and his major books, Canadian Constitutional Law (1963) and The British Tradition in Canadian Law (1969), became standard reference texts.
In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau acknowledged Laskin’s brilliance by appointing him to the Supreme Court of Canada, the first jurist of the Jewish faith so honoured in the country’s history. Three years later he became chief justice. In this capacity he presided over a number of landmark cases, none more celebrated than the constitutional reference case concerning the patriation of the British North America Act, the basis for Canada’s modern constitution, in 1981. A short while later, in 1984, Laskin died while in office.
Lester Pearson (1897-1972; BA 1919 Victoria)
In the midst of the First World War, 20-year-old Lester Bowles Pearson agreed with his flight-school squadron commander that “Mike” was a much-improved moniker, and “Mike” he became, for the rest of his days. Born in 1897, the future prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize-winner enjoyed a charmed life of picnics and baseball until the outbreak of war in 1914. The previous year, Pearson had enrolled at Victoria College. Graduating after the war with a BA in history, he went to Oxford on a Massey Foundation fellowship, where he read modern history and played hockey and lacrosse for the university. “Herr Zigzag,” as the admiring Swiss dubbed him during a hockey tournament, emerged from Oxford with a coveted Blue in both sports.
In 1923, Pearson returned to Canada to teach in U of T’s history department. He loved teaching, and his students thought him vibrant – especially Maryon Moody, the one he married – but he had too much restless energy and enthusiasm for contemporary events to live the sometimes semi-monastic life of a professor. The Canadian Department of External Affairs was thus a magnet, and in 1928 Pearson began a 30-year career as a diplomat, becoming the face of Canada’s foreign service from London to Washington to Ottawa. He would also serve as chancellor of Victoria College from 1952 to 1959. In 1957, Pearson’s career was capped gloriously when he became the first Canadian awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leading role in brokering an end to the Suez Crisis through the creation of a United Nations Emergency Force. UN peacekeeping was born. In 1963, by then leader of the Liberal party, Pearson was elected prime minister of Canada, serving for five years before retiring.
More than any of his contemporaries, Pearson epitomized Canada’s emergence in the mid-20th century as a country of real power and influence. U of T’s loss was the country’s gain, for while Pearson would have made a competent history professor, his true arena was the negotiating table and the conference hall. Still, it’s unlikely that any other university can boast that a former professor who coached its football and hockey teams went on to win the Nobel Prize and become prime minister.
George Brett (1879-1944)
Sports fans among the readership may be initially disappointed to learn that it is George Brett the philosopher, not the baseball player known for his prowess at the plate, who is included in this collection of leading University of Toronto intellectuals and alumni. They needn’t be. This George Brett, born in Wales in 1879, was a winner, too.
After earning a first-class degree in classics (or “Greats”) at Christ Church, Oxford, Brett taught for a few years at Government College, Lahore, in today’s Pakistan, then British India at the height of the Raj. His next move was to Canada, to teach classics at U of T. In 1908, however, his interest in the new field of psychology caused him to migrate to the department of philosophy, where he remained until his death in 1944, working to establish psychology as a separate discipline within the academy.
The years just before, during and shortly after the First World War proved especially fruitful for Brett. As one observer has noted, in his major work of scholarship, A History of Psychology (published in three volumes from 1912 to 1921), he assessed and largely rejected the mind theories of his day, concluding that psychology is the study of the immediate data of the inner life. He was committed to historical modes of understanding, as his 1913 book, The Government of Man, makes clear.
Human freedom, he argued, emerges over time from the relation between changing social orders and the inner life. Such was Brett’s impact that he is acknowledged as the founder of the Toronto school of intellectual history, an informal group of like-minded psychologists who saw Brett as their mentor.
As chair of U of T’s department of philosophy from 1927-44, and dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Brett was perhaps the most important figure in the development of psychological, ethical and religious studies in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. He founded the Canadian Journal of Religious Thought and served as editor of The International Journal of Ethics. At U of T, he was the first editor of the University of Toronto Quarterly, now in its 71st year.
Brad Faught (PhD 1996) is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to University of Toronto Magazine.