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75 Things You Didn’t Know about U of T

75 Things You Didn’t Know about U of T

A peek at some characters, quirks and curiosities of our history

Presidential Perks and Quirks

Young at Heart: U of T’s longest-serving president (1907-1932), Sir Robert Falconer, was a strict Presbyterian who never drank alcohol but would walk some distance for a scoop of soft ice cream. In 1923, he was asked to judge the Toronto Star’s Loveliest Child Competition.

Hey, You at the Back: Dublin-born clergyman John McCaul (the second president of King’s College), shared this secret about his renowned oratorical skills: “Speak slowly and as distinctly as possible, and at the same time fix your eyes on one or two persons near the door. When you have . gained their attention . keep the voice at that pitch and you will hold your audience.”

Here’s How He Counts: James Loudon, a math scholar, became U of T’s first Canadian-born full professor in 1875, then its first Canadian-born president (though the university’s fourth) in 1892.

A Kick in the Kishka: When the exuberant, Gaelic-speaking president Sidney Smith (1945-57) tasted kishka at a Holy Blossom Brotherhood Temple dinner in 1955, he raved about the dish so much that The Noshery restaurant sent a private supply to the Smiths. Nearly 20 years later, Orthodox Jewish students in residence complained about having to pay full board for food they couldn’t eat – kosher meals were not available anywhere on campus.

Big Wheels: President Claude Bissell (1958-71) was chauffeured about in his favourite sedan, a Celebrity Oldsmobile 98 – ordered new every three or four years so that he could enjoy the latest accessories. The wheels came off that perk when George Connell took over in the late ’70s – he shared his car and driver with the university’s vice-presidents.

Easy Rider: President George Connell (1984-90) rode some exciting wheels: a Harley that he revved on the front steps of Simcoe Hall. Decked out in motorcycle leathers, “Dr. Wild Thing” became a front-page pinup for The Varsity’s annual gag issue. (Connell’s head had been superimposed on Sheila Copps’ body to hilarious effect, or so thought the Varsity staffers.)

Pedagogic Wonders

If It Please the Court: Before coming to Canada in 1842, Henry Holmes Croft, U of T’s first professor of chemistry, turned down an offer to become court pianist to the King of Hanover. The skilled musician and Renaissance man ended up in a completely different kind of court: testifying in trials concerning death by poison.

Say That Again: William Henry Van der Smissen, professor of German from 1866 to 1913, was so fond of his own lectures he once repeated a favourite three times in one year, to the same class.

A True Breadwinner: Political economist Vincent Bladen may well have been an expert on price systems and the economist Adam Smith, but he won the hearts of colleagues with his fabulous fruit loaf. It inspired Professor Robert Finch to this poetic rapture: “The whole description’s wasted/if you should happen never to have tasted” a fruit loaf done the Bladen way.

He Went Back Home to Rest: Professor Guy Frederic Marrian arrived at U of T in 1933. Over the next three years he supervised seven biochemistry theses – likely a record in those times. In 1936, he solved one of the mysteries of birth by discovering that two female sex hormones trigger labour. He returned to England in 1938.

This Was a Shock: While conducting research on hypothermia, Dr. W.G. Bigelow discovered that electrical charges could induce a heart to continue beating when it otherwise might have stopped. His research team went on to develop the first pacemaker suitable for clinical use in 1949.

Jock Talk
The Grass Is Always Greener: When the foundation for a new gym on the back campus of University College was laid in 1892, students objected so strongly to losing their playing field that they struck this deal: they would pay to have the foundation removed, even doing much of the work themselves, if the university would relocate the gym. The gym moved to the present-day site of Hart House, and the back-campus playing field still exists today.

Bowled Over Again: That same gym, built in 1893, included a bowling alley, probably the only one on campus. Alas, the gym and alley survived only until 1912, when they were demolished to make way for Hart House, which offered many amenities – but not bowling.

Hockey, Whatever: Musicians were the unlikely beneficiaries when Varsity Arena opened on Bloor Street in 1926: the ice rink was found to have excellent acoustics. It became the summer home of popular symphony concerts in the 1930s and ’40s, drawing audiences of as many as 5,000.

Thanks for the Memories: After several unsuccessful attempts to sneak into Hart House for training in the 1960s, future Olympic medallist Abby Hoffman figured the House would have to let her in when she joined a team of male U of T students training on the Hart House track in preparation for the 1967 World University Games. No such luck. Nevertheless, the determined Hoffman did go to the games with the team. To her chagrin, the university later sent her a bill for her travel expenses.

Udder Nonsense
High Steaks: For Halloween high jinks in 1868, UC undergrads lured their steward’s cow up the stairs of the dining-hall bell tower. The steward awoke to a cacophony of ringing, to find his cow’s switching tail tied to the bell-rope. It’s a good deal harder to coax a cow downstairs than to persuade it to go up. In the end, Bossie had to be slid down from the tower on boards.

Cow-ching: In the 1880s, the university collected rent on pasture land it owned on the southeast corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road – where Victoria College, Annesley Hall and the Club Monaco clothing store now stand. In his memoirs, journalist Hector Charlesworth offered these fond musings of pasturing his family’s milker: “When I lost the key of the pasture, I had to go trembling to the bursar’s office to procure a new one.”

Cow-towing It Out of Town: In the early days, there were only a handful of students in agricultural science at U of T, giving Professor George Buckland of agriculture ample time to create a 25-acre experimental farm where Hart House now stands. Though a mediocre instructor, Buckland succeeded in his attempts to create greener pastures in 1874, when he helped to establish the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph.

War Stories
Cold War One: President Robert Falconer resisted pressure to close the university during the First World War to release students for war service, saying that doing so would “still one of the most helpful voices in the country.” However, with munitions industries getting priority for fuel, the university did close for three weeks during the winter of 1917, when it ran short of coal.

Cold War Two: On Halloween of 1953, Victoria College students, dressed in white robes and carrying lighted candles, burned American Senator Joseph McCarthy in effigy to protest his Communist witch-hunting campaign. “The students were safe, though, from a McCarthy investigation or reprisal,” reported the New York Times, “being Canadian undergrads at U of T.”

War and Peace: In 1935, the Student Christian Movement (SCM) advocated a uniform-free Remembrance Day ceremony, to emphasize peace in the future rather than past wars. Their service attracted a full house at the Hart House Theatre while, steps away, a large group, including soldiers in uniform, attended a ceremony at Soldiers’ Tower.

Important Fluff: One of Uof T’s most successful Second World War inventions came from the botany department: substituting kapok in Mae West life jackets with the fibrous parts of milkweed. For some time, Russian dandelions grew rampant on campus, and U of T scientists managed to develop a synthetic rubber from the plants.

No Free Exchanges: The Students Administrative Council (SAC) came under fire in February of 1939 for picking up the entertainment tab of German exchange students on campus. “The happenings in [their] country were not their fault,” said SAC. A few weeks later, the council pulled the plug on SAC’s support when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

Little Brits Flee Blitz: U of T staff and graduates found homes for or took in 147 children who were removed from London from the summer of 1940 to October 1941 during and after the devastation of the Battle of Britain.

Problematic Erections
High Defence: Sidney Smith Hall opened in 1961 to a litany of complaints – about its overwhelming size, its ill-cooled and stinky basement animal labs and, as President Claude Bissell diplomatically phrased it, its “arrangement of masses.” Toasting the building’s opening, Professor F.H. Anderson reached these oratorical heights: “the building is not a hurdy-gurdy, a bonbon dish, a seashell, a soufflé, a church or a boiler factory, but manifestly a humanized stronghold and urbane habitation, ready practically to serve the high utility of ancient and modern humane scholarship.” We hope he was able to land a corner office.

Design as Smokescreen: In a 1966 letter, U of T governor Sydney Hermant complained that while the new Scarborough College was “most imaginative and spectacularly functional – smokestacks notwithstanding,” there was a “general feeling” that the cost “was almost double the original budget.” President Claude Bissell’s diplomatic response: “It will be hard to get at the truth of Scarborough, since the building arouses shrill opinions.”

Bargain Tower: The tower that tops the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library – called by many the goose’s head to the goose’s body that is Robarts Library – is purely decorative, meant to add esthetic balance. One cost-saving plan, however, nearly cut the head off the goose, until the chairman of the property committee learned that the tower would cost only $10,000. He then declared that, at that price, he quite liked it.

Curious Yellow: At a distance the exterior of University College seems to be made entirely of stone, but two-thirds of it is clad in a very pale yellow brick from a local brickyard. Time and dirt change all.

Town and Gown Diplomacy

Surely They Weren’t Vic Students: In 1892, Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat accused U of T of being a hive of immorality, claiming that “women were seen about the place at late hours.” The dean of residence agreed that Queen’s Park was a “notorious” meeting place, where men and women walked together at nighttime, but he added: “I have often met them and taken care to observe whether or not they were students. I have never met a student with a woman…. The residence cannot be held responsible for the conduct of the immoral citizens of Toronto.”

So Who Went There? U of T asked its graduate students to leave residence in 1893, accusing them of leading undergrads astray. When the 13 grads refused, the dean tossed their personal effects into the dining hall. Several took the matter to court, but the charges against the university were dropped. The graduates found other digs, presumably farther from Queen’s Park.

They Named a Square after Him: In 1955, Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips demanded the removal of three pictures from a Hart House art exhibit, calling the works “obscene.” One of the artists, Michael Snow, later became famous for his Flying Geese sculptures that soar in Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

These Profs Deserve a Hand
Do the Write Thing: Sir Daniel Wilson, U of T’s third president, had a handy skill: he could write different words with his left and right hands, simultaneously.

Money, Indeed, Talks
Too Much Ivy on the Ivory Tower: When prominent architect Eric Arthur complained in 1974 that ivy was destroying University College, Principal Archibald Hallett countered that “every alumni visitor” would “scream” if the lush greenery were stripped away. An expert from the grounds department duly investigated and diplomatically reported, “While ivy may in fact feed on the lime in brickwork, stonework and mortar joints. there is less weathering damage to brick and stonework where it is covered with ivy.”

Anti-Hades Kitty: The first principal of New College, D.G. Ivey, suggested that the $10 fees forfeited by students who applied for, but didn’t accept, residence be used to start a fund to buy artistic, athletic or academic items for the residence. Ivey proposed calling it the Cerberus Fund, after the mythical three-headed watchdog at the gates of Hades, as it might well “help to keep the college from going to hell.”

Professorial Dust-Ups
The Message Wasn’t Clear Then: Dean of Graduate Studies Andrew Gordon was dead set against funding a centre for Marshall McLuhan’s study of culture and technology. President Claude Bissell rushed to a lukewarm defence: “Whatever one may think of McLuhan’s work, he is undoubtedly one of our great international figures.I think we must do all that we can to keep him.” McLuhan got his centre in 1963, and the building where it is still housed in 1968.

War of Words: Oscar Pelham Edgar loved to lecture from a heavy oak lectern. Andrew James Bell loved space to roam. As the two taught in the same classroom, the lectern was constantly shuffled in and out until Bell had the final say: he and one of his students heaved the lectern from a second-storey window of Victoria College.

The Fairly Peeved Sex

Money Makes the Break: The threat of possible court cases and the Ontario government’s concern about the cost of setting up a separate women’s university had much to do with women finally gaining admission to U of T in 1884.

Speaking Volumes
Thrice Burned: After the University College fire of Feb. 14, 1890, French lecturer John Squair asked the Ontario Normal School for a bequest of 20 rare French novels that were collecting dust in their library. He was refused. In 1927, he found the same novels collecting more dust in the Ontario Legislative Library. Again, Squair got the brush-off. Finally, 90 years after the first request, U of T library was offered the books.

Wrong Timing: In 1897, history Professor George M. Wrong was so determined to produce an annual review of historical publications about Canada that he paid out of his own pocket to have the first volume published. In 1920 it became the Canadian Historical Review, and it is still published today. Eventually, Wrong was rightly reimbursed for his early investment.

Intoxicating Words: A 1942 stag party thrown by poet, and then U of T instructor, Earle Birney apparently inspired the first chapter of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. Frye attributed the cause for his revelation to “The Truant,” a poem read at the party by its author, E.J. (Ned) Pratt.

Check the Credits: Morley Callaghan’s 1948 The Varsity Story was certainly nostalgic, but it was not fond memories of the ol’ Blue and White alone that inspired the novel. U of T’s board of governors commissioned the work as part of a fundraising campaign.

Bons Mots or Naughty? Attempts to unify the French curriculum in the 1950s met with fervid resistance: St. Mike’s nixed some books that were on the index, a list of titles that Catholics were prohibited from reading. The compromise? St. Mike’s students got a work by André Gide (although he was verboten), as long as the other colleges agreed to read the approved François Mauriac.

Oh, Henry! U of T library’s order for a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1962 was held at Canada Customs, as the book had been on its prohibited list since 1938. The library took its fight for the book to the university president and solicitors. Pssst: U of T’s libraries currently have six copies.

The Times Were A’ Changin’
Black Mark: Barbara Arrington, a black student at U of T, was asked to join a women’s fraternity in 1959, but days later, her invitation was revoked because of possible “friction with affiliated fraternities in the American south,” reported The Varsity. The resulting furor led to the university’s public disavowal of fraternities.

Jewish Barrier: There was a quota system during the 1940s and ’50s that restricted the number of Jews allowed into pre-medicine. In 1959, Robin Ross, the university registrar, told President Claude Bissell that 14 well-qualified Jewish applicants were refused. “In most cases,” wrote Ross, “it was quite unrealistic to argue that the rejected candidates were refused on any other grounds than that they were Jewish.” The quota system disappeared in the 1960s.

The Iron Ceiling: Perhaps the last barrier to co-education at U of T was breached when women were allowed to become fellows of Massey College in 1974. Hart House had admitted women just two years earlier. Vincent Massey, a bulwark of traditional upper-class conservatism, had died in the late 1960s, and the tide had turned toward more liberal times.

First Rates
Stick and Karat Approach? Until 1885, students who graduated first in honours classics, mathematics, modern languages and history, mental and moral philosophy and natural sciences received gold medals for their efforts.

Was It a Sugar High? U of T built North America’s first decompression chamber in 1941, to test the effects of high speed and high altitude on pilots. The first to try out the chamber was Sir Frederick Banting, who co-discovered insulin in 1922. Banting tested to the equivalent of 25,000 feet and minus 59 degrees Fahrenheit and was prepared to push further, but his staff intervened.

King of Computers: Canada’s first electronic computer, purchased by U of T in 1952, computed projected effects of the St. Lawrence Seaway on water levels in the Great Lakes. It also played checkers.

A Close Call in Space

Thankfully Not Spaced Out: With Apollo 13 crippled in space, NASA asked U of T’s aerospace institute for air-pressure calculations to ensure safe re-entry of the capsule into the earth’s ozone. Confident they were part of a wider NASA team, researchers cranked out the correct figure within the three-hour deadline, without computers. They learned later they were the only scientists assigned to the problem.

Sex and the Single Male

No Sax Please, We’re Skittish: In the ’20s, the Hart House musical club soberly decreed that no jazz or ragtime music could be played on its pianos. The ban was lifted in 1957 for the Peter Appleyard Quartet and Moe Koffman’s group. Oscar Peterson rattled the ivories for a packed Great Hall in 1961.

Exchange Trips Lead to Sweaty Moments: Finnish students built the first sauna at Hart House Farm in 1954, returning the favour of Hart House members who had helped build a communal sauna at the Finnish Institute of Technology in Helsinki during an exchange trip three years earlier.

Pool Envy? Some men admitted that the real reason they wanted to keep women out of Hart House was so that they could continue a long tradition of swimming nude in the pool. The women’s offer to join them in the practice was not accepted. Women were fully admitted, fully clothed, to Hart House in 1972.

The Way We Were
Over budget: Vic undergrad Norman Jewison produced his first show, All Varsity Revue, to acclaim and profit in 1948. The future Hollywood director then blew the profit and put the show in the red by taking the cast on an unauthorized trip to Montreal. Cost: $316.

Frostbitten: Atom Egoyan, known for his downright emotionally chilly films, shot his first flick, Howard in Particular, in 1979 and edited it in the frosty film board room on the second floor of Hart House. Recalls Egoyan: “I did most of the cutting wearing mitts.”

Not That We Don’t Trust You: In 1985, the administration sent university employee and part-time student John Maine to buy a paper from an essay-for-purchase service advertising on campus, with this prudent advice: “The purpose of the exercise is to secure as much information as possible about the operation..I will leave it to your judgment to concoct a plausible topic. However, I think it would be wise to avoid one directly related to any course in which you are now enrolled.”

Words Are Quite Enough: The Hart House library committee would not order Esquire, a popular men’s lifestyle magazine launched in the 1930s. They worried that there would be “certain pages carried off” – the magazine’s rather wholesome illustrations of women, one presumes.

Freaky: Rochdale College (1968-75), a short-lived experiment in alternative education started by U of T students and faculty but never affiliated with U of T, sold degrees to help pay the mortgage. For the non-BA, one had to “say something useful,” while for the non-PhD, one had to simply “say something.” The price tag for the degrees ranged from $25 to $100.

REALLY Rad: At the height of student unrest in 1968, Marshall McLuhan suggested that President Claude Bissell call the students’ bluff. “Simply invite them in to organize the entire educational job. Pay them no salaries whatever..Make them do the entire job for one year while the regular staff relaxes and studies the experiment.”

Their Kinda Gal: At the annual winter carnival, started in 1955, the Snow Queen was judged for her “enthusiasm, willingness, and general appearance,” but she was also scrutinized for her ability to snowshoe, saw wood and cook pancakes over an open fire.

We Love You, Ya, Ya, Ya

Splitsville? A week after playing a 1969 concert at Varsity Arena with his Plastic Ono Band (which included Eric Clapton), John Lennon promptly split with the Beatles. But, no, we did not cause the ruination of the Fab Four. According to one source, Lennon later said: “I knew on the flight over to Toronto or before we went to Toronto.”

Harmony, Dude: Three months after that September concert, John Lennon and Yoko Ono dropped by U of T to visit Marshall McLuhan. (They were en route to meet Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa and later staged their famous love-in in Montreal.) During the meeting, arranged by CBS Television, the two pop walruses discussed their theories on music, language and peace. As the pair drove away in their Rolls, however, McLuhan’s message was less than rock-star cool: “These portals have been honoured by your presence,” he said.

Striking the Right Note: To choose a grand piano in 1984, the Hart House music committee invited eight professional pianists to play seven grands over a two-day period. Obsessive? Greats such as Anton Kuerti would later play the chosen instrument. The perfect pitch? A 1935 New York Steinway, which echoes in the Great Hall.

Neither Here Nor There

Odd Sods: The Rotary Clubs of Toronto were so anxious to have something to report to an international convention in 1964 about their gift to establish an International Student Centre that the university agreed to a sod-turning ceremony at a fictitious site on Huron Street. Two years later, the ISC moved into an established building, Cumberland House, on St. George Street.

Odd Ends
Decommissioned: From 1958 until recently, U of T was a nuclear power, albeit a minor one. The Haultain Building housed the first small reactor, replaced by SLOWPOKE – the Safe Low-Power Kritical Experiment reactor – in 1971. The reactor, used for research, was decommissioned in 2000.

Unslimed: Before exams, students used to seek out the mythical carved beast that perches on the newel post of the east staircase in University College, and rub it for luck. Luckily the tradition is extinct, as the griffin (some say it’s a dragon) has been severely darkened by generations of sweaty palms.

Under-used: One of the oldest chairs in the university was dubbed the Prince of Wales chair, as the royal tush reputedly touched down on it when the prince visited in 1860. Then, the P of W propped up chancellors while they bestowed degrees. When a more ornate model arrived, the humble chair was shuffled off to serve a series of ends: it was used by the speaker for the University College parliament before engineering pranksters stole it, then The Varsity bought it as its managing editor’s chair. Today, situated on the left side of the fireplace in the UC Junior Common Room, it supports whatever bottom happens to plunk down on it.

Rites of Passage

Blame the Overachiever: Claris Edwin Silcox, editor of both The Varsity and Torontonensis in 1908, penned the lyrics to the university’s anthem, “The Blue and White” song, the same year. Music was by Clayton E. Bush.

Verse 1:
Old Toronto, mother ever dear
All thy sons thy very name revere

Yes, we’ll hail thee,

Ne’er will fail thee

But will seek thy glory with our might,

(Yes we are)

Ever loyal, faithful, frank and strong,

We will sound thy praises in our song, 

Aye, and cheer both loud and long,

The Royal Blue and White


Toronto is our University

Shout, oh shout, men of ev’ry faculty 

Velut arbor aevo,

May she ever thrive
God forever bless our alma mater

Verse 2: 

Soon our college days will all be past, 

Duty bids us part from friends at last 

But we’ll sever,

Trusting ever 

Love for Varsity may us unite – 
(unite us) 

Then we’ll serve the mother of us all,

And the merry days of youth recall,

While whatever may befall, 

We’ll flaunt the Blue and White


Toronto is our university.
Home Again: U of T held its first official homecoming weekend in November 1948. More than 4,000 alumni came, making it the largest gathering of the U of T community since the centennial celebration in 1927.

Blame the Irish Accent: Some attribute the engineers’ Toike Oike chant to an Irish caretaker who worked at the School of Practical Science. Apparently, at the end of the day, he was in the habit of telling stragglers to “take a hike.” By the late 1920s, the chant had evolved into the engineering song:

Toike Oike, Toike Oike

Ollum Te Chollum Te Chay 

School of Science, School of Science

Hooray, Hooray, Hooray.

Research by Charles Levi. Some of the items that appear here are also related in The University of Toronto: A History by Martin Friedland. They are used with permission of the author.

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  1. One Response to “ 75 Things You Didn’t Know about U of T ”

  2. G. James Thomson says:

    My interest in the summer issue heightened when I read of "the installation in 1957 of the SLOWPOKE nuclear reactor." Actually, SLOWPOKE (an acronym for Safe Low Power Critical Experiment) was installed in 1971. In 1969, I became project engineer for SLOWPOKE's installation, working with Professor Robert E. Jervis. It is sad to relate that despite its bright future, U of T's SLOWPOKE will soon be decommissioned. There is also the sorry saga of cloned Chinese SLOWPOKEs in Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria, reported in the Dec. 18, 1999 issue of the Toronto Star. C'est dommage.

    G. James Thomson (BASc 1948)
    Oakville, Ont.