McMaster University
Challenging Minds to Change the World

When McMaster University was created in 1887, it was widely agreed that university should be a place of light, liberty and learning. That was certainly what Senator William McMaster had in mind when he created this new university with an endowment of nearly one million dollars.

A native of Northern Ireland who had come to York (Toronto) in 1883, McMaster was a successful wholesale dry goods businessman who, in 1866, founded the Bank of Commerce, the forerunner to today’s Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

Foundation and Early Years in Toronto

In the early 1880s, there was a movement for the federation of church-related colleges to align themselves with the state-supported University of Toronto. Baptists, including McMaster, were committed to the principle of keeping Church and State separate. Thus McMaster and his fellow Baptists established their own independent university, adjacent to the University of Toronto, and accepted full responsibility for its affairs including all finances.

University Hall, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

One primary aim of the founders of the new university was to graduate “men and women of personal integrity, lovers of social justice and peace.” During its early years in Toronto, the university limited its course offerings to liberal arts, undergraduate science and theology. Many of its graduates, during these formative years, contributed to the health and strength of established communities, to the opening up of Northern Ontario and western Canada, some devoting themselves to human betterment in such distant countries as India and Bolivia.

Cyrus Eaton, a 1905 graduate in philosophy, became one of North America’s most successful entrepreneurs. Later, through his sponsorship of the Pugwash Conferences of Science and World Affairs, Eaton played a key role in ending the “Cold War.” Far less celebrated, but deeply revered by those who knew him, was Earl Merrick, a Baptist missionary who helped to liberate Aymara Indians from serfdom in Bolivia.

Some McMaster graduates became renowned members of their professions. Harold Innis was a widely respected academic economist and Roy L. Kellock a member of the Supreme Court of Canada. Two brothers, Sherwood and Carey Fox, played key roles in higher education in Ontario. Sherwood Fox was President of the University of Western Ontario, 1928 to 1947; Carey Fox, a businessman, was a long-time member of the McMaster Board of Governors who shepherded his university through many financial difficulties, often using his own money to provide needed help. These represent only six of the 1437 McMaster graduates during its Toronto years. Many endeavoured to improve human life wherever they located.

Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula, 1930-1957

In 1930 McMaster moved to Hamilton, Ontario, and accepted the additional challenge of helping to meet the higher educational needs of the Niagara Peninsula. The increased demand for the university's services during this second era of its development was reflected, in part, by the growing number of graduates, now averaging about 200 a year, compared with about 40 annually while in Toronto.

McMaster medical Students in anatomy class.

There were, of course, various reasons for the growth. Perhaps the most significant was the increasingly rapid application of new advances in science and technology in Hamilton, the Niagara Peninsula and Canada, generally. Knowledge of McMaster's contributions was becoming increasingly widespread.

Syl Apps, a McMaster graduate, became widely known as an Olympian and as Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey team. He later served as a Cabinet Minister in the Ontario Government. Russ Jackson, a McMaster football star, led the Ottawa Rough Riders to Canada's Grey Cup in 1969, later becoming a much respected high school principal.

Widening International Recognition

The 1950s and 1960s saw McMaster’s most progressive expansion into the ranks of a first-class university. Under the leadership of Dr. Harry Thode, McMaster opened the first university nuclear research reactor in the British Commonwealth, established an engineering school unlike any other in Canada and, with the opening of the McMaster Medical School, laid the groundwork for a philosophy of student-centered teaching and interdisciplinary collaboration that has proven to be McMaster’s most distinguishing charac-teristic.

Peter George, President of McMaster University. 

By the 1970s, McMaster had emerged as a dynamic transnational centre for higher learning. In addition to its advanced work in physical sciences, engineering and nuclear studies, it had begun to establish doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences. Its Faculty of Health Sciences was developing an international reputation for excellence and its business school was well established.

McMaster University now awards more than 3,000 earned academic degrees annually, bringing the total since its first graduation in 1894 to more than 90,000. McMaster grads include such well-known figures as astronaut Roberta Bondar, former Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Lincoln Alexander, and the 1997 Nobel prize winner in economics, Myron Scholes.

McMaster Today

Today McMaster continues to serve its supporting communities as a centre of light, liberty and learning. Its tree-lined campus bustles with more than 17,000 full- and part-time students and boasts some of the best facilities in Canada: the only research nuclear reactor on a university campus; a 1.5 million volume library containing the world-renowned Bertrand Russell Archives, Canadian Literature Archives, and 18th century collections; and the McMaster Museum of Art, one of the finest public galleries anywhere in the country.

These facilities support a rich variety of programs that have made McMaster one of the top research and teaching institutions in Canada. Its innovations are many: the first medical school to train doctors using small group, problem-based learning;“theme schools” that promote in depth interaction of students and faculty across the disciplines; and programs that stress critical thinking and problem-solving skills to give our graduates an edge in the emerging knowledge-based global economy.

It’s no wonder McMaster has earned a reputation as one of Canada’s most innovative universities. Senator McMaster would be proud.