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Leaders & Mavericks

Exceptional political alumni

Even in the 1840s when U of T was known as King’s College, students complained, as always, that entrance requirements were too difficult. However, some exceptional alumni of the past century took the mandate for excellence to heart. Many enhanced the prevailing political and social standards of their day; others, when the standards were too low, raised them.

William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) was considered by other students to be either “rather shy” or “one of the most egotistical students … ever.” However he was perceived, Billy King (BA 1895 UC, LLB 1896, MA 1897) was mostly unsuccessful in getting elected to university associations. As a freshman, the top student sent some of his poetry to The Varsity. Associate editor Stephen Leacock decided it had no literary merit and sent it back with a rebuke.

Oronhyatekha (1841-1907) was likely the first native to get a medical degree in Canada (MB 1866, MD 1867). As supreme chief ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters, he travelled the world promoting its egalitarian message and his Mohawk heritage.

The first woman to graduate from medical school in Canada, Augusta Stowe Gullen (1857-1943), became an expert in pediatrics. Shy and sensitive as a teen, Gullen (MD 1883 Victoria, MDCM 1887 Trinity) needed all the courage she could muster to register in the “great friendless halls” of the male- dominated institution. She carried on, although “wet lashes closed her eyes on many nights.” Gullen was active in the suffrage and temperance movements and helped found the National Council of Women in 1893.

Political activism motivated Norman Bethune (1890-1939) from an early age and twice interrupted his medical studies at U of T. The first break was in 1911-12 when he joined Frontier College to teach workers in the bush; the second was in 1915 when he served with Canadian forces in France. He finally earned his medical degree in 1916. His dogged devotion to political causes would later make him a hero in China. His yearbook entry summed up the way he lived his life: “Born – 1890. Lived – First Canadian Contingent. Death – Predicted, but date unknown.”

Known as “the mother of birth control in Canada,” Marion Powell (1923-1997) was a pioneer in women’s health and family planning. Powell (MD 1946, Dip Public Health 1962) was one of only four women in her class when she entered medicine in 1941. In 1966 she helped found the first public birth-control clinic in Canada in Scarborough, Ont.

Rev. Susan Mabey (BA 1975 Victoria, MDiv 1980) won an important court decision in 1988 that the United Church could not bar homosexuals from the ministry solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Trained as a social worker, William Thomas McGrath (1918-1999) fought for social justice reform in Canada. An opponent of the death penalty, McGrath (BSW 1947, MSW 1948) was instrumental in the debate that finally ended public executions in this country.

Some who arrived from other shores, like writer Austin Clarke (BA 1959 Trinity), remained to enrich our nation, while others, like those below, used the expertise they gained here to improve their homeland.

Dame Nita Barrow (1926-1995), who graduated with certificates in public nursing in 1944 and nursing education in 1945, returned to her native Barbados to work as a health planner. She served her country as ambassador to the United Nations and finally as governor general. Some credit Barrow, the first foreign official to visit Nelson Mandela in jail, with helping to convince South African authorities to free him.

Syringa Marshall-Burnett (BScN 1967) earned certificates in hospital and public health nursing in 1962 and 1964. She is president of the upper chamber of Jamaica’s Senate and an educator who advises the World Health Organization on nursing.

In June 1999, Vaira Vike-Freiberga (BA 1958 Victoria, MA 1960) was elected president of Latvia and became the first female head of state of a former Soviet republic. Known in her native country as the philosopher president, Vike-Freiberga is an expert in Latvian folk culture.

Noor Hassanali
(BA 1947 Victoria) was a prominent lawyer and respected Supreme Court judge as well as a two-term president of his native Trinidad and Tobago.

Chao-Shiuan Liu (PhD 1971) was appointed vice-premier of Taiwan in 1997, following a distinguished career at the National Tsing Hua University.

The careers of three remarkable graduates converged with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Escott Reid (BA 1927 Trinity) worked from 1946 to 1949 as chief aide to then foreign affairs minister Lester B. Pearson to help shape the defence alliance. Hume Wrong (BA 1915 UC), Canadian ambassador to Washington, drafted parts of the NATO treaty in 1949, while George Ignatieff (BA 1936 Trinity) served as permanent representative to NATO during the ’60s. Although all were estimable students, there was little in their pursuits at U of T to foreshadow their enormous international impact.

Adrienne Clarkson (BA 1960 Trinity, MA 1962) became Canada’s governor general last year, but it was her work as a CBC broadcaster that made her a household name. Clarkson arrived with her family in Canada from Hong Kong in 1941 in the wake of Japanese invasion. As a student, she was sensitized to politics as vice-president of the Students’ Administrative Council and head of St. Hilda’s College.

Margaret Norrie McCain (BSW 1955) was lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick from 1994 to 1997. A noted philanthropist, she is particularly known for her work in fighting family violence. She and her husband Wallace have established a chair at U of T in child and family studies.

Research by Rebecca Caldwell.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Leaders & Mavericks ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was pleased to see my sister Marion Powell among the 100 alumni who shaped the century. I do wish that the tale that she was one of four women in her class in medicine, as previously reported elsewhere, had not been repeated here. The really interesting story is that 20 women were admitted (in a class of about 150). The class was told explicitly that only 10 women would pass and that proved to be the case, the standard for “passing” being applied differently for women than men. Those 10 all graduated in February 1946 (in an accelerated program to provide physicians to serve in the Armed Forces) and nine practised medicine. We’ve come a long way!

    Prof. M. Eleanor Irwin
    BA 1959 UC, MA 1960, PhD 1967
    Division of Humanities
    University of Toronto at Scarborough

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I am conceivably the most obscure person of the three generations bearing the name of Wrong to have graduated from the University of Toronto since the late 19th century, and I have no strong objection to being confused with my father. But if as stated in your spring issue that my father did indeed earn a BA in 1945 and only four years later drafted parts of the NATO treaty, then it is even more amazing that nothing in his career as a student "foreshadowed his enormous international impact," as the text puts it. You have, of course, confused him with his son, namely me, who did graduate in 1945. My father, however, graduated in 1915.

    Dennis Hume Wrong
    BA 1945 UC
    Professor Emeritus, New York University
    Princeton, New Jersey