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Bernhard E. Fernow, the first dean of U of T's Faculty of Forestry
Bernhard E. Fernow. Photo courtesy of University of Toronto Archives

“The Child of My Creation”

Bernhard Fernow guided the Faculty of Forestry from its founding a century ago through the tragic losses of the First World War

In April 1907, a few months before U of T’s Faculty of Forestry was set to open, Thomas Southworth – a civil servant in Ontario’s Department of Crown Lands – delivered a speech to the Canadian Institute that summed up the challenges the new school would face.

Southworth had canvassed Ontario’s leading lumbermen to see if they would employ graduates, and all but one of them said they would not. Unless the men controlling Canada’s forested lands could be convinced that a forestry college was desirable, Southworth could see no “particular need” for one.

Southworth’s inauspicious assessment haunted Bernhard E. Fernow during his tenure as the faculty’s first dean. Neither the forest industry nor the Ontario government offered much support for the new school, and the university was able to provide little more than subsistence-level funding.

Fernow, who had founded North America’s first professional forestry school at Cornell University in New York, was aware of these challenges when he accepted the job at U of T. There were fewer than a dozen foresters in Canada in 1907, and Fernow, 56, recognized that his graduates faced bleak job prospects. “Only a radical change in attitude – a realization that forest conservation is a present necessity and that existing methods are destructive of the future – will bring forward the needed reform,” he postulated shortly after the faculty opened in the fall of 1907. He reasoned that the school was cause for hope, since a greater number of foresters in Canada would heighten public awareness of their work.

During his 12 years as dean, Fernow strove relentlessly to produce the best graduates possible. He asked U of T’s Board of Governors to set the faculty’s entrance requirements above those required by the rest of the university. They agreed. In Fernow’s view, the collective reputation of foresters and forestry was at stake. Fernow, an imposing presence with combed grey hair and an untamed moustache, had little patience for forestry students who did not live up to his ideals. When he discovered during the 1910-11 school year that a handful of students were skipping classes, he sent the guilty parties a curt letter: “Allow me to say to you that I consider it decidedly impolite on your part to cut lectures without excuse.”

When Fernow found out that student George Smith was cutting classes and labs during the same academic session, the dean advised him that “for the good of the Faculty, if not of yourself, you will have to mend or retire.” When Smith continued his wayward drift, Fernow fired off another letter warning that he intended “to clean out from the Faculty all those who did not attend faithfully, because we cannot afford in our profession any laggards.” Smith heeded Fernow’s warning and went on to graduate in 1914.

Fernow’s high standards created a high attrition rate. Enrolment in the four-year program grew from six in 1907 to almost 50 at the start of the First World War, but, typically, 40 per cent of each year’s class failed out of the program. In the student yearbook, the class of 1913, with 16 first-year students, noted jocularly that “the hand of the Examiner was heavy upon us, and but 11 survived, more or less battered, to enter the second year.” Two more would fall before the class graduated.

Fernow was old school in his heavy-handedness, yet he had a soft touch that belied his gruff countenance. If you respected his rules, he bent over backwards to make you feel part of the faculty. The dean often opened his Avenue Road home to his students. His wife, Olivia Reynolds, who was born in the United States, taught the students German. (Most forestry literature at the time came from Germany.) She and the dean also hosted an open house each Sunday to ensure the students ate well at least once a week.

The dean showed tremendous patience with students who demonstrated drive, even if they sometimes missed the mark. “I do not know how often the vilest sinner may return,” he explained to one floundering student, “but I am always willing to give anyone another chance if he recognizes the depth of his guilt.” On the occasions that Fernow realized his mentoring was insufficient to right a sinking ship, he dispatched an update to the affected parents, offering them an opportunity to help facilitate a recovery before it was too late.

While some students undoubtedly bridled under Fernow’stough love, the dean earned the undying respect of many of his charges. At the time of his convocation, E. H. Finlayson (BScF 1912), who would go on to enjoy a prolific career with the Dominion Forest Service, wrote to Fernow: “I go out into the world, Doctor, with respect and gratitude to you for all you have done for me, and I trust that my work will prove me a worthy disciple of your teachings.”

When Fernow passed away in 1923, former student James Kay (BScF 1919) wrote to Fernow’s successor on his life-changing experience with the dean. “I have often thought and felt that the most precious and permanent thing that remains with us long after we leave the University has not come from deep study of books or lectures, but an indefinable something that is passed on, or radiates from the men who try to guide our aspirations.”

This “indefinable something” may have been the remarkable camaraderie that Fernow fostered among his students and staff. The Faculty of Forestry was a tiny professional school where students took many of the same courses together for four years. During field trips, they lived and worked side by side. “We have studied together, scraped through Exams together, tramped, worked and slept together, have feasted and gone hungry together,” forestry students wrote in the 1913 yearbook. These ties were further cemented through the creation of the Foresters’ Club in 1909, which met every two weeks during the school year, and to which all staff and students belonged.

FERNOW DID WHAT HE COULD to develop foresters of the highest distinction, but the faculty’s success ultimately rested with the provincial government and U of T. Yet as much as Fernow understood there was a political aspect to his job, he never came to grips with one basic fact: the Ontario government was not interested in his forest conservation message. During the Tories’ reign from 1905 to 1919, they did little to conserve Crown timber.

Faculty and students of forestry, 1907-08
Faculty and students of forestry, 1907-08

Their disinterest was driven home to Fernow in 1907, the first year of the faculty’s existence. Frank Cochrane, Ontario’s minister of lands, forests and mines, announced that his department would “inaugurate a more rational and conservative policy regarding the treatment of timber resources.” The plan included hiring Fernow’s graduates to manage the provincial reserves, monitor cutting, improve the forest-fire ranging system and reforest parts of southern Ontario. In an article in University Magazine shortly after Cochrane’s announcement, Fernow wrote that “the Faculty of Forestry has received a testimony of justification which will rejoice every forester’s and every patriotic citizen’s heart.” But in the end, little came of Cochrane’s promise.

Fernow’s penchant for speaking his mind stands as a lesson in how not to lobby effectively. By consistently challenging provincial politicians, Fernow created an ever-widening chasm between the Faculty of Forestry and the bureaucrats responsible for administering Crown timber. Strangely, he appeared acutely aware of the deleterious impact of his behaviour, but unable (or unwilling) to change his confrontational approach. He remarked to a fellow professor at Purdue University in Indiana that his run-ins with the Ontario government brought “more trouble than glory!” By 1918, shortly before Fernow stepped down as dean, the provincial government had hired only one of the faculty’s 55 graduates.

His dealings with U of T were tense, too. He took the job as dean on the condition that he receive at least one full professor, one associate or assistant professor and two assistants. But when the faculty opened, he was assigned only one lecturer and one assistant. Fernow protested vehemently to U of T’s president, Robert Falconer, who the following year found the money to fund another lecturer. Space was also insufficient, and the situation worsened as the faculty expanded. Fernow repeatedly stressed this shortcoming to the U of T administration, and in his 1912 annual report concluded despondently that “after the first quinquennium of its existence, it cannot be said that the Faculty has reached a permanent form.”

THE FIRST WORLD WAR had a profound impact on Fernow’s close-knit group of students and staff. He and Olivia kept a stream of correspondence flowing from the dean’s office to “their boys” who had enlisted. And those in uniform faithfully responded to the Fernows’ requests for updates on how they were faring overseas.

One of Olivia’s dispatches to the front in March 1917 captures the deep-seated emotion. “Dear Boys,” her letter begins, “you certainly are the finest fellows in the world. Would you believe it? We have heard from 21 of you since Christmas. Every letter counts.” After jocularly reporting that Albert Bentley (BScF 1921) was interviewing Germans “in their own tongue” and that “it looks as if he speaks a better German than they,” she turned to the tragic news of Douglas Aiken (BScF 1916), who had died on the battlefield in November 1916. “He was so brave that he went by the name of fire-eater,” she wrote. “I almost smiled, though the tears were in my eyes. Our lovely, gentle student! Oh! Dear boys, you can’t imagine how lonely the forestry building is, and how we are longing to have our undergraduates back for work and our graduates for a greeting. Goodbye! Write again! We all love your letters!”

As much as the Fernows agonized over the safety of “their boys” overseas, the dean had reason to worry about his own security during the war. An immigrant from the city of Posen in the former Prussia, Fernow had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1883. But a fervent “anti-Kaiser” sentiment pervaded Canada during the war, casting aspersions on anyone associated with Germany. This generated significant pressure on Falconer to discharge any professors with German roots. By November 1914, just three months after the start of the war, Falconer had fired three faculty members of German descent.

A Tory MPP trained his sights on Fernow in January 1915, arguing that it is “dangerous when [German] men are permitted to impart knowledge to the youth of this country.” The MPP threatened to lobby for the withdrawal of financial assistance to the university until it guaranteed that it would “discharge every German on staff.”

Fernow responded by defending his loyalty to the Allies. In a statement in The Globe, he declared that “all the young men of the country should join the army to go and fight for Britain.” He stated that he had “urged every member of his classes to take up military training” and “helped to make it convenient to do so.” In closing, Fernow wrote that he was a pacifist, and that “this war should stop at once.” The pressure on U of T to fire Fernow mounted with each passing month of the conflict, but the dean responded to each new attack with an increasingly zealous defence of his loyalty to the Allies.

Fernow’s performance during the war was even more extraordinary because of what he had managed to conceal. In the mid-1950s, Ralph Hosmer, a friend and a former head of Cornell’s forestry department, revealed that Fernow had retained deep sympathy for his native land during the war. Hosmer recounted that in 1917, while at a Society of American Foresters meeting in Washington, D.C., the U of T dean told a group of colleagues, “My heart is with the fatherland, but my head with the Allies.” Hosmer said Fernow’s remarks indicated the tact that he had exercised during those difficult years in Toronto.

By war’s end, almost all of the faculty’s students and graduates who were eligible had enlisted, and 52 of its 55 graduates had served on the front. Fernow repeatedly boasted about thisexemplary level of commitment but, as he noted in 1918, “it is thus that the Faculty of Forestry has suffered perhaps more than any other by the call to arms.” Fifteen students lost their lives and dozens were injured in battle.

The war’s tragic toll compelled Fernow to take a more lenient attitude – at least temporarily – toward his students. True to form, he granted leniency only reluctantly. U of T’s policy was to grant students who served overseas credit for one full year of university. While recognizing that the students had provided a valuable service, Fernow felt this might undermine his goal of creating the best possible graduates. So, with little choice but to accept the university’s policy, Fernow took steps to safeguard the faculty’s reputation. As the dean gruffly explained to John Simmons (BScF 1915) in the spring of 1915, the faculty had “reluctantly come to the conclusion that in view of your enlistment, although your record is poor, we may give you the degree honoris causa for you have hardly earned it by your work. I must advise you, however, that upon your return you ought deliberately to take another year to fit yourself for life work, for with your present equipment you will hardly be able to secure or hold down any position in the forest service, and we would hardly be able to recommend for such.”

In Fernow’s view, safeguarding the faculty’s reputation also meant barring women from the profession. The dean was adamant that they should never become foresters. To one young woman who inquired in 1918 about employment prospects in the field, Fernow replied: “There are some occupations for which women are not specially fitted and forestry is one of them, at least in Canada, on account of the rough life in the woods which it entails.” The faculty would adhere to this viewpoint for the following four decades.

BY 1916, if not earlier, Fernow lost patience with what he saw as U of T’s indifference to the plight of his faculty. Fernow’s parting correspondence to President Falconer revealed much about the challenges that had fettered his progress and defined his decade as dean. In May 1919, he wrote Falconer to ask for a retroactive salary increase and the honour of being named Professor Emeritus. He closed by promising to earn the honorary title by making himself “useful to the Faculty, the child of my creation.”

Fernow had overseen the faculty’s establishment and growth but had received far less support than he believed he had been promised. Although his successor, Clifton Durant Howe, an associate professor with the faculty, would take up the post without the same expectations of staffing and space, he, too, would grapple with the issues that arose from running a forestry school that neither the university nor the Ontario government seemed particularly inclined to nourish.

This article is adapted from Mark Kuhlberg’s book about the history of the Faculty of Forestry, to be published in 2008. Kuhlberg (BA 1989) is a history professor at Laurentian University.

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  1. One Response to “ “The Child of My Creation” ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Thanks for this interesting overview of the Faculty of Forestry’s early history. It seems that today’s dean faces the same challenge in getting society to recognize the value of our forests and the need to sustain them.

    Tim Gray
    MSc 1992