History of the Biology Department

Early beginnings in Natural Science


James McGill (1744-1813)

When James McGill, pioneer, fur trader, politician and philanthropist died in 1813, he made a large bequest to his recently founded Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, on condition that within 10 years, it would create a university. In 1821, London granted a Royal Charter for a new establishment but lectures didn’t start until 1829 when the Montreal Medical Institute formally became the Medical Faculty of McGill University. Greek and Latin studies were added to the medical courses but little else.

 


This changed in 1855 when John William Dawson became McGill’s fifth Principal. Best known for his discoveries of the earliest known terrestrial vertebrate fossils in the cliffs of Joggins, Nova Scotia, Dawson was an enthusiastic paleontologist. He transformed McGill by restructuring the curriculum with a strong Natural Science component, assembling a competent teaching staff and raising funds for an ambitious building program.


John William Dawson
(1820-1899)
   

Evolution of three departments

In an era which relied almost completely on herbal medicines, lectures in botany played an important role in the medical curriculum. When ill health forced Dawson to reduce his grueling 10-14 hours per week teaching load, he hired David Penhallow to take over his botany lectures. By 1885, Botany was listed as a separate course of study and Penhallow had the title Chair of Botany and Vegetal Physiology.


David Penhallow (1854-1910)


In 1897, a Chair in Zoology funded by railway magnate Lord Strathcona, lured Ernest MacBride to McGill. McBride had studied with the eminent embryologist Sedgewick in Europe and he brought his expertise in microscopy and development to McGill - subjects that have remained at the forefront of biology research ever since.

The Molson family endowed a Chair in Genetics. A separate Department of Genetics – the first in Canada - was established in 1934.

The Biological Sciences Building

Sitting atop the McGill crest over the front door of the James Administration Building is a stone frog - a reminder of the 1922 building’s original role. The Rockefeller Foundation had pledged $1 million towards the development of medical teaching and research, which served as seed money for a long-needed home for the traditional (botany and zoology) and new (physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology) biological sciences.


 

 

The frog on top of the entrance to the Biological Sciences Building, now the James Administration Building.

 

The Merger  
   

The 1960s saw the development of the McIntyre-Stewart complex as part of the campus-wide building program to cope with an escalating student enrollment, but decades of economic depression and political upheaval curtailed research growth at McGill. The research labs were not keeping pace with the exciting new trends in biology that were evolving elsewhere.

In 1970, a visiting committee of three internationally distinguished biologists was invited to evaluate the condition of biological sciences at McGill and to make recommendations for the future. Their report criticized all aspects of our teaching and research. They recommended that the three departments be merged into a single Department of Biology.


Dr. Gordon MacLachlan

Gordon Maclachlan was persuaded to take on the thankless task of melding 50 academics in disparate groups into one effective community and creating a vigorous research climate. The curriculum was restructured, staffing was examined critically, governance of the department became democratic and the student voice was heard. In short, under Maclachlan’s guidance, the new department thrived.

 

The new large department opted for excellence in a few select areas rather than try to cover every aspect of modern biology. Following much debate, four areas were selected - ecology, human genetics, molecular biology and neurobiology - a very different direction from most other Canadian universities.

McGill’s Biology department became well respected, faring well in surveys of biology departments across Canada. The success of its academics in obtaining grants immeasurably boosted the quality and confidence of McGill’s research groups. Our numbers of post-doctoral fellows and research associates were unequalled in Canada.

Faculty Members, Department of Biology, 1976

The 1980s and 90s were lean years for university funding. McGill endured 25% budget cuts across all faculties. There was an erroneous perception that the university still enjoyed rich endowments and therefore had less need of government support.

   
Expansion  
   

In the late 1990s, all levels of government awoke to the problems of Canadian universities and the shortages of highly trained personnel. As a result, they introduced funding programs to hire additional staff.

The millennium brought a crop of fresh faces and much needed money, both for new equipment and renovations to the Stewart Building. Entire floors were gutted and reconfigured to create more efficient workspaces.



Francesco Bellini, a leader in Montreal’s pharmaceutical industry and developer of anti-HIV therapies also pledged funding towards a new molecular biology complex. The Belllini Life Sciences Complex opened in 2008, providing space for at least 450 researchers from the Biology and Medical Faculty units.

<< The Bellini Life Sciences Complex/Stewart Biology Buildings


The Biology Department’s campus facilities for learning and research, are augmented by field stations around the globe, as well as Study Abroad Exchange programs.

Photo credits: Robert Lamarche, Guy L'Heureux, Torsten Bernhardt


   

(click to enlarge)

For the complete history of the Department of Biology, please refer to:

BIOLOGY @ McGILL
A History of the Biology Department at McGill University

by Valerie M. Pasztor

Books are available in the Biology Department ($25). Please contact Dr. Pasztor for your copy.