I. Early Days

Getting Started

The exact date on which the Graduates' Society came into existence remains something of a mystery. McGill granted its first degree in 1833 to medical student William Leslie Logie, who was the sole graduate that year. McGill's academic pace gradually picked up, but it would be 20 years before any evidence appeared of former students coming together to influence the University.

In 1853, the Board of Governors' minute book records a reference to a Dr. G. Fenwick, writing "on behalf of the Graduates of McGill College," to propose a change in the University's statutes. The details of his request are unknown. But as Dr. Stanley Frost notes in his splendid two-volume work on the history of McGill, "the importance of the incident lies in its implication that there was already by the year 1853 a group of graduates who were interested in the well-being and development of the college."

Early in 1857, several articles in Montreal newspapers announced that a collection of graduates had formed the McGill University Society, which, by 1870, was sufficiently organized to adopt a formal constitution. This was revised just six years later and the group renamed itself the Graduates' Society of McGill University. In addition to declaring the organization’s annual membership fee to be $1.00, the 1876 constitution gave us a passage that, even today, is often quoted when discussing the Alumni
Association. It stated that "The object of the Society shall be to bind the graduates more closely to each other and to their Alma Mater." 

Like those who joined Dawson in beautifying the campus, the Society's first members interpreted this passage as a call to improve the physical resources available to students, and specifically the quality of the University's library. In 1876, they established an endowment fund for that purpose, and during the next two decades, the Graduates' Society lobbied for additional staff and increased access to the facilities. Throughout the Alumni Association’s history, this would be a recurring theme: McGill graduates identify a pressing need, and then work tirelessly until the need is met.

Sir William Osler’s Contributions

Looking back on this period, the influence of one of McGill's most famous graduates, Sir William Osler, MDCM1872, is unmistakable. Having served for several years on the Society's governing Board, he became its president in 1881. Membership increased dramatically during his tenure, and the resulting boost in interest and funds was reflected on the bookshelves. Between 1878 and 1890, the library's collection surged from 5,000 to 13,000 volumes.

Osler was also a book collector. When he died in 1919, he bequeathed his personal collection of approximately 8,000 items to McGill, a collection which included 140 incunabula – books published before 1501. From this initial donation, the Osler Library of the History of Medicine (where his ashes now rest) has grown into a collection of more than 60,000 volumes.

Driven by his dual passions for medicine and books, Osler somehow found time to serve as a volunteer librarian. Perhaps this isn't surprising. After all, one of his characteristic sayings was: "To study the phenomenon of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all."

Most people familiar with McGill are aware of Osler's enormous contributions to the practice of medicine. And yet, because of his international acclaim, it's easy to overlook the hours of volunteering – whether on the Board of the Graduates' Society or among the dusty stacks of a library – that contributed to the indelible mark he left on the University and his students.

Expanding Beyond McGill

As the 20th century approached, the Graduates' Society began to look beyond the University in order to serve its expanding and increasingly scattered body of alumni. Beginning in 1895, chapters were established in Ottawa, New York, Halifax, Toronto and British Columbia. However, perhaps the most important new division sprang up closer to home with the establishment of the Alumnae Society in 1889.

McGill began admitting women in 1884, and when the first class of eight graduated four years later, these pioneering women vowed to continue their intellectual fellowship and activism. According to Dr. Margaret Gillett's book, We Walked Very Warily, alumnae sponsored debates and lectures "with a
 strong emphasis on Canadian literature, history and science. The general question of Woman's role in society was also a major concern."

By 1891, there were 30 women graduates and their interest in the welfare of working women led them to establish a Girls Club and Lunch Room, where female shop and factory workers – some of  whom earned 60¢ for a 10-hour day – could buy meals for a few pennies. Other services were added, including a fund for unemployed women, dressmaking classes, programs for children and a library. After 20 years, the Girls Club evolved into the University Settlement, and then into a general welfare agency with a professional administration. Another cause the Alumnae Society championed was securing the vote for women. Although the federal franchise was granted after the First World War, it wasn't until 1940 that Quebec women could vote. Through the years, McGill alumnae joined their francophone sisters in the battle for equal rights, employing ingenious tactics like dropping flyers from airplanes to further the cause.    


Nowadays known as the McGill Women's Alumnae Association, the group works for the benefit of the University and its students through the Muriel V. Roscoe Lecture series, Alumnae Scholarships, and – working with the Women Associates – the annual two-day McGill Book Fair.

2. A New Era >>