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Heroes & Icons

Theirs are the names that pass back and forth in conversations around the world

The achievements of some individuals can’t be replicated. They gain fame or recognition for their brilliance, creativity, bravery or audacity. Theirs are the names that pass back and forth in conversations around the world. When these icons are reflected back to us, they teach us something about our collective selves as Canadians. Here are some of those singular people.

Frederick Banting (1891-1941) enrolled at U of T in 1910 to study general arts and immediately produced marks so dismal he was told not to return. He managed, however, to convince the university senate he was worth a second chance. He was granted conditional acceptance to medical school (due partly to the fact that there were few applicants), where he was better known for his rugby prowess than his academic skills. He graduated (MB 1916), served in France, then later developed his surgical techniques at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. In 1922, working with U of T colleagues, Banting developed insulin. During his lifetime he was considered the most famous living Canadian. Indeed, his fame was such that he received mail from around the globe, including a letter from Denmark addressed simply to: “Professor Bentin, Esq., Inventor of Serum against Sugar Disease.”

Lester B. Pearson
(1897-1972) enrolled at U of T in 1913, but when war broke out he was one of the first students to enlist. Hit by a bus in London in 1917, he returned to Canada to complete his studies. An all-round athlete, Pearson (BA 1919 Victoria) played football, basketball, tennis and hockey and was elected president of the Union Literary Society. Later, he was chancellor of Victoria College from 1952 to 1959. Canada’s foremost diplomat, he developed our basic post-war foreign policy in the late ’40s and was prime minister from 1963 to 1968.

Novelist Margaret Atwood (BA 1961) chose Victoria College because she was told it had a professor named Northrop Frye, and “if I knew what was good for me I should go there.” Frye and another Vic teacher, Jay Macpherson, greatly influenced her early poetry. Atwood first met poet Dennis Lee, who attended Vic at the same time, at a first-year mixer. She also worked with Donald Sutherland (BA 1958 Victoria) on plays at Hart House Theatre, where her drawings graced the covers of theatre bills.

Canada’s first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar (PhD 1974) flew on the NASA space shuttle Discovery in 1992. A medical clinician and researcher, Bondar, who studied at the Mississauga campus while at U of T, has focussed her research on the human nervous system and inner ear balancing. Canadians undoubtedly will remember her, however, for her ability to articulate the beauties of space.

Barbara Frum
(1937-1992) was one of Canada’s foremost journalists, known for her pointed CBC interviews with foreign leaders. Like the Mounties, she didn’t give up until she got her man. When she began university, however, she was cautious about the one event that could get in the way of graduation – marriage. During her first year, 1955, it wasn’t unusual for women to be engaged by spring and leave university immediately after marriage. “All the girls here are getting married, it seems,” she wrote her family. “Every day we hear about someone else. I know of at least 10 girls from Soc. & Phil. getting married in May.” Unswayed, Frum completed her BA in history at University College in 1959.

Peter Gzowski’s fractured time at university is best viewed as a journalism career interrupted by studies. He left the campus for periods to be a reporter at the Timmins Daily Press and the Toronto Telegram and in 1957, still a few credits short of his degree, he left school for good to work at a paper in Moose Jaw. The future host of CBC’s Morningside found time during his final two years at U of T to edit The Varsity. Among his year (“the class I didn’t graduate from,” he calls it) were businessman Ted Rogers and politician Stephen Lewis.

Johnny Wayne, born Lou Weingarten (1918-1990), and Frank Shuster had almost more names for their comedy duo than skits. They performed at U of T as Weingarten and Shuster, Shu and Lew, Frankie and Johnny and finally Wayne and Shuster. As English graduate students in 1941, they were hired by local radio station CFRB after making a splash in the UC Follies. Shuster, who completed his BA at University College in 1939 (Wayne graduated in 1940), later joked that although both of them worked on The Varsity, the fact that neither became editor drove them into radio. By 1954, the funnymen had moved from radio to television and widespread success.


The 20th century’s two great wars were periods of massive disruption. The post-war impact was equally profound on campus, especially after the Second World War, when Ottawa funded tuition for veterans and enrolment exploded. Writer Morley Callaghan referred to those who returned from the war as “men in a hurry.” The changes the wars produced have become so familiar it is easy to lose track of how they happened. The memory of two U of T war heroes, however, will help ensure that we never take for granted those who fought and those who never came back.

Every Remembrance Day we think of poet John McCrae (1872-1918), author of “In Flanders Fields.” McCrae (BA 1894 UC, MB 1898, MD 1910) wrote his famous poem in 1915, while waiting to treat wounded soldiers. He died of pneumonia in 1918, age 46.

Major Fred Tilston (1906-1992) won a Victoria Cross during World War Two for gallantry while leading his company against overwhelming German opposition. Alone and wounded three times, he held a key position from which the Allied forces later launched further attacks. After the war, Tilston (BPharm 1929) returned to Canada to work as a pharmacist and later headed a large drug company.

Research by Rebecca Caldwell.

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  1. One Response to “ Heroes & Icons ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    This special alumni issue really warms my heart. As Barbara Frum's mother, I am proud indeed to find Barbara (BA 1959 UC) listed among Canada's heroes and icons in a publication so prestigious and fine as this.

    Florence Rosberg