1931: The world welcomes Plexiglas
In 1911, German scientist Otto Röhm invented a resilient, flexible and transparent substance. Trouble was, one key ingredient was hard to find: methyl methacrylate. Enter William Chalmers, PhD'30, a McGill graduate student who devised a new method for producing the chemical. Knowing that Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain was doing similar work, Chalmers sold them his patent. One of the first commercial uses for ICI's Perspex—now known as Plexiglas—was to make see-through machine gun turrets for B-19 bombers. Today, Plexiglas is used in everything from aquariums to contact lenses to motorcycle helmets.
1936: Laying the foundations of modern heart surgery
When Maude Abbott, BA'1890, MCDM'1910, joined McGill's Department of Pathology, little was known about how to surgically repair damaged hearts. Through her work as the assistant curator of McGill's medical museum, Abbott collected and studied the hearts of people who had died of cardiac problems, and scoured historical records for accounts of heart disease, meticulously cataloguing and identifying cardiac anomalies identified during autopsies. The result was the 1936 Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease, which laid the foundations of modern heart surgery.
1940: Madeleine Parent
As early as her student years at McGill, Madeleine Parent, BA'40, was a champion for the downtrodden and a vibrant campaigner for social justice and women's rights. Just three years after graduating, she established herself as a key union organizer bringing thousands of workers into the labour movement. A co-founder of the Confederation of Canadian Unions, Parent would spend the next half-century helping to reshape the labour environment across Quebec and all of Canada.
1942: The next generation of anaesthetics
When Harold Randall Griffith was the chief of anesthesia at the Montreal Homeopathic Hospital in the early forties, surgery patients were still calmed using ether and other gases—resulting in an excruciating, sometimes fatal, recovery process. To counteract the convulsions and other unpleasantness these drugs caused, Griffith became the first person to use curare as a surgical anesthetic in 1942, proving that a careful dose of curare relaxed the body enough that other anesthetics could be dramatically—and safely—reduced. His work paved the way for dozens of similar drugs still widely used today.
Translated into 321 languages and dialects, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is probably the most cited legal document ever drafted by a Canadian. In 1946, John Humphrey, BCom’25, BA’27, BCL’29, PhD’45, then a Professor of Law at McGill University, was asked to create a 400-page blueprint that became the Declaration's foundation. Committee chair Eleanor Roosevelt famously called it "the Magna Carta of all mankind."
In the eighties, AZT was the only option for suppressing HIV, but the drug had a dark side: patients not only suffered debilitating side effects, they quickly grew immune to its anti-HIV properties. So McGill chemistry professor Bernard Belleau, PhD’50, went hunting for an alternative. He led the charge to synthesize 3TC, a compound that stunts HIV’s tenacious rate of replication—without the drawbacks of AZT. Belleau died in 1989, six years before the last stage of 3TC clinical trials ended. The drug proved a turning point in developing the HIV-fighting “cocktail” that helped curb the AIDS mortality rate.
McGill neuropsychologist Brenda Milner of the Montreal Neurological Institute discovered that the hippocampus is largely responsible for how brains memorize facts and transform short-term memories for long-term retention. Her discovery revolutionized the study of memory worldwide.
1951: Mapping the brain
Wilder Penfield, a neurology and neurosurgery professor at McGill, revolutionized our understanding of the human brain. Penfield and his team refined and extended a daring surgical technique learned from his German mentor, Otfried Foerster, and the groundbreaking "Montreal Procedure" allowed patients to remain awake and describe their reactions while a surgeon stimulated different areas of the brain.
1952: North America's first Islamic Studies institute
Shortly after World War II, a prescient religion professor named Wilfred Cantwell Smith founded North America's first Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill, to help the West better understand Islam and Islamic peoples. The Institute's library, which started with just 250 books, today holds more than 110,000 volumes.
1954: IQ scores and the desegregation of the American South
During the thirties, Columbia University psychology professor Otto Klineberg, BA’19, MDCM’25, DSc’69, examined the IQ scores of black and white children in the U.S. segregated South and the desegregated North. His key finding: Southern black children’s IQ averages, the lowest of all the groups, rocketed when they began attending desegregated schools. Klineberg’s work played a crucial role in the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the desegregation of Southern schools.
Like many driven young men, Thomas Chang often brought his work home with him. The difference with Chang was his "work" was that the near-impossible task of creating the world's first artificial blood cell. And as an undergraduate student in 1956, his "home" was his residence room in McGill's Douglas Hall.