William Nicol's first Queen's experience was when, as a young man, he attended a lecture given by Professor Nathan Fellowes Dupuis at the Cataraqui Town Hall. Professor Nicol later said that his interest in science began that night, but he claimed that it was not the words of Dupuis that inspired him, but rather his curiousity about the oxyhydrogen flame in a lantern used to project pictures onto a screen at the front of the room.
Professor Nicol studied at Queen's years later (BA 1883, MA 1889) and was known as a keen student, taking awards in Greek, French, Rhetoric, and English Literature. Despite his talents in these subjects, however, it was to science that Professor Nicol was truly dedicated.
At the suggestion of Principal Grant, Professor Nicol went to Germany for graduate school, studying at the Bergakademie in Freiburg. He returned to Queen's in 1891 as an Assistant Professor in Chemistry and taught for several years.
When the idea of establishing a School of Mining and Agriculture (now the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science) first surfaced, Professor Nicol was encouraged to return to Germany and take special training so that he could teach in the new school. He did so, studying at Freiburg and Heidelberg for a few years before returning once again to Queen's in 1896, this time as the university’s first Professor of Mineralogy in the Department of Mining.
Professor Nicol was known as a strict disciplinarian in the classroom and had little patience for students who refused to take their studies seriously. However, he was also known as a very friendly and generous man. He had no close family and donated all his time, energy, and extra income to Queen's. There are stories of students who fell on hard financial times and were helped discreetly by Professor Nicol. The building that bears his name was made possible by his extremely generous donation of $40,000 to the school. His only stipulation in handing over this large sum of money was that he should receive a modest yearly pension off the interest of his donation.
Professor Nicol was a great collector of mineral samples and donated all of them to Queen's to be displayed publicly. The Miller Museum of Geology, which is located in Miller Hall, contains many of the samples he collected as well as a reproduction of Nicol's laboratory. Professor Nicol believed that a private collection of mineral samples was of no use to anyone and he once told his class half-jokingly, "if you ever see a good specimen in a private collection, try to get the owner to present it to the university. If he won't do this, try to buy it. If he won't sell it, steal it."
Professor Nicol retired in 1918 due to failing health. He had been at Queen's since before the founding of the School of Mining and Agriculture and is looked on as one of the founders of Engineering at Queen's.
Nicol Hall is named in his honour.