McGill Alumni Association History

150 Years of Alumni Leadership

The development of the McGill Alumni Association can be broken down into three periods, each spanning roughly 50 years. "Early Days" covers the organization's founding and its initial projects; "A New Era" looks at its response to local and global crises in the first half of the 20th century; and "Modern Times" examines its growth into a worldwide network for graduates. With each period, as social and political conditions changed, so did the challenges confronting the University and its graduates. Whatever the demands, the Alumni Association's guiding principle of service to the University remained unshakable. Read on to discover how the dedication and commitment of alumni have shaped the course of McGill’s history.

"The Living Endowment”

When Sir William Dawson became McGill's fifth principal in 1855, he inherited a neglected, crumbling campus. Library resources consisted of two or three shelves of books. The natural history "collection" consisted of a single piece of fossilized coral, kept in a pigeonhole at the registrar's desk. Classes weren't even held on campus. Two sections of the Arts Building had been constructed, but dynamiting for the McTavish Reservoir had rained rocks onto the roofs, causing the buildings to be condemned. They stood, as Dawson wrote, "amidst a wilderness of excavators' and masons' rubbish, overgrown with weeds and bushes." Enrolment totalled a scant 64 students.

Another pressing concern was the cows. Cattle from surrounding farms contentedly grazed on McGill's unfenced grounds. Dawson knew his school couldn't function or attract students if it resembled, as he put it, "a common, used for pasturage." Once work was under way to restore the buildings, the new principal, an avid naturalist, rolled up his sleeves and began planting trees.

But he was not alone in his work. Members of the recently-formed Graduates' Society were right there beside him, digging in the dirt as they helped to beautify the campus. Thus, from the earliest days, alumni have played a direct and integral role in advancing McGill's mission. Over 150 years, they have given their time, ideas, energy and money for the betterment of their alma mater. More than this, alumni have displayed a unique ability to both identify the institution's most pressing needs and resolve the problems quickly –  always with McGill’s best interests in mind.

1. The Early Years >>