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From Sole Scholarship to Collective Enterprise: 175 Years of Research at Queen’s

No university, and no department of a university, is alive unless it is infused with the spirit of research. If we fail in the universities, we shall fail in every other department of our national life, so the responsibility is on our shoulders.

Principal Robert Wallace, 1945

[Researchers at Yerkes observatory]
Alice Vibert Douglas and colleagues at Yerkes Observatory, Chicago, 1925 (Queen's University Archives)

[observatory]The purpose of universities, it is frequently asserted, is twofold: to transmit the knowledge of past generations to future generations while simultaneously creating new knowledge to broaden that heritage. When, in the late 1830s, a group of Presbyterian clerics and Kingston businessmen huddled to agitate for a college of higher education, their ambition was to create an institution devoted to teaching. The charter they obtained from Queen Victoria in 1841 expressly dedicated Queen’s College to “the education of youth in the principles of Christian religion and instruction in the various branches in science and literature.” Research was never mentioned. Colonial Canada was an immature society, dependent on Britain and America for developmental knowledge. Hence, the ideas that lay behind everything from steam engines to poetry were derived from more mature cultures. Invention was imported. What mattered as Canada approached nationhood was the training of young citizens to anchor their new society. Whether for the Presbyterian ministry or the nascent federal bureaucracy, Queen’s dedicated itself in the grooming of minds, not new research frontiers.

The First Hundred Years

Throughout its first century, Queen’s crafted a reputation for excellence in teaching. Many came to regard it as “the Princeton of the North,” where students learned at the knee of diligent and collegial professors. Promotion in the faculty went to those who shone in the classroom. Research was marginal, something driven by personal curiosity and squeezed between pedagogic duties. The young college provided virtually no funding and few laboratories for those inclined to probe the conundrums of their discipline. When, in the 1890s, Queen’s responded to the nation’s appetite for engineering expertise, it dedicated its newborn engineering faculty to applied science, oblivious to the mutual dependence of fundamental and applied science. “If we confine ourselves to applied science,” geology professor William Goodwin frequently warned, “there will soon be no more science to apply.”

Research was marginal, something driven by personal curiosity and squeezed between pedagogic duties.

There were exceptions – professors who struck out on their own to explore the frontiers of their disciplines. In 1858, George Lawson arrived in Kingston from Edinburgh to teach chemistry and natural history. He brought his own library, equipment and botanical specimens.

Botanical garden on the front lawns of Summerhill, early 1860s (Queen's University Archives)

Inside Summerhill, Lawson established a herbarium, while on the slope outside Lawson planted a botanical garden to serve as a living laboratory for students. Lawson would become the founder of the Botanical Society of Canada. One of his students, Nathan Dupuis, proved similarly inquisitive, becoming the “observer” at one of Queen’s first research facilities – the 1861 campus observatory.

Dupuis was a polymath, teaching geometry, astronomy and chemistry, serving as a librarian and later building the clock in Grant Hall. Geology provided another research opportunity for some Queen’s professors after Ontario established a mining school on campus in 1893. Each summer, geologists from Queen’s trekked into the northland in search of minerals to fuel Canadian growth.

Science was not the only sphere of such eclectic research. As the twentieth century dawned, political economists Adam Shortt, W.C. Clark and Oscar D. Skelton embraced empirical research, delving into Canada’s economic history, its banking system and its relations with the United States. Both Clark and Skelton carried their Queen’s expertise to Ottawa, where they became prominent in designing modern Canadian federalism. In the arts faculty, moral philosopher John Watson, another Scottish import arriving at Queen’s in 1872, built an international reputation on his ground-breaking exploration of Immanuel Kant and Herbert Spencer.

[Nathan Dupuis]
Nathan Fellowes Dupuis (Queen's University Archives)

These were, however, some exceptions to the primacy of teaching. Although, they were − in the words of Dr. Steven Liss, Queen’s present Vice-Principal (Research) − “sole scholars.” A century ago, Dean Goodwin of Applied Science would have agreed: “…we have suffered from our excessive individualism.” Inattention to research at times cost the university dearly. In 1915, for instance, mineralogy professor Herbert Kalmus quit, frustrated that the university failed to back his after-hours research into bringing colour to film making. Returning to his native United States, Kalmus co-founded the Technicolor™ Motion Picture Corporation and became rich − and famous on every movie screen on the continent.

Like the faculty as a whole, research was almost entirely a male preserve. Science, in particular, was everywhere seen as a male prerogative. Only the occasional Madame Curie officially broke the research glass ceiling. At Queen’s, Alice Vibert Douglas provided one stellar exception. An astrophysicist who also served as Dean of Women, Douglas came to Queen’s in 1939 and built a global reputation as an astronomer, becoming president of the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society from 1943-45.

War Comes to Queen’s

War incubated greater devotion to research. As World War I turned into a “total war,” sapping national resources and ingenuity, Queen’s geologists searched for cobalt to harden steel, Queen’s chemists tested flares for the Munitions Board and Queen’s mechanical engineers fine-tuned auto engines for the McLaughlin Motor Car Company. New labs were opened in Gordon Hall, but there was still no central coordination of research, either on campus or nationally.

In 1917, the university’s trustees did establish the Committee on Scientific Research to provide minimal oversight of the scattered research done on campus. A meagre $10,000 was taken out of the university’s endowment to finance select projects. In 1919, Queen’s first research chair – the Chown Science Research Chair – was endowed by a prominent local family. In 1929, the Miller Memorial Research Chair in geology was established. Applied Science hired an instrument maker and a glass blower to facilitate lab work. Research in the humanities and social sciences remained sparse. In 1922, arts research scholarships were introduced, but they supported only a smattering of projects proposed by senior professors. Finally, in 1937, an Arts Research Committee was created to provide small grants for projects such as a linguistic atlas of North America. Much of the money behind these halting initiatives was in fact supplied by generous Queen’s benefactors such as the Richardson family and auto tycoon Sam McLaughlin.

The inter-war period saw little improvement. Government parsimony and economic depression gnawed at the university’s finances. Year after year, the Principal’s Report broadcast a litany of woe on the research front: “insufficient funds,” an “acute” need of laboratories, and a lack of student assistants. There was, however, a growing recognition that faculty research and graduate studies were intimately linked. Graduate students not only stimulated faculty imagination through thesis supervision, but they also became partners in research. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Queen’s regularized its graduate programs, setting, for instance, faculty-wide standards for the MSc degree. One reflection of this was the 1937 formation of the Baconian Society, an informal group (named for Elizabethan scientist Francis Bacon) at which professors and graduate students could dissect their research.

[Herbert Kalmus]
Herbert Kalmus (Queen's University Archives)

Another world war strengthened Queen’s embrace on research. “Research work in war problems is carried on in ever increasing amounts,” Principal Wallace reported in 1943. For the first time, large amounts of federal funding flowed onto campus from agencies such as the National Research Council and the defence department. With student enrolment depressed by wartime enlistment, faculty turned to war-oriented research. Much of the research was wrapped in secrecy. Biochemist Guilford Reed, who had worked with the federal government since the 1920s on fisheries and cattle husbandry, turned his attention to bacteriological warfare. His lab in the New Medical Building (now Kathleen Ryan Hall), guarded day and night by soldiers, explored deadly bacilli that might figure in the war’s worst-case scenarios. Arts professors found their own niches: historian Fred Gibson studied Canadian-American relations.

Shifting Roles

The war primed Queen’s for post-war research. The 1944 acquisition of a biological research station in the Rideau Lakes north of Kingston offered a hint of things to come. Canada was becoming a planned society in which research predetermined policy. Money flowed more freely towards university research as the national economy surged into a period of unbroken growth. By 1948, the principal’s annual report described “a desirable state of affairs” as monies from the National Research Council and the new Ontario Research Fund sponsored projects and new laboratories. In parallel, the university intensified its graduate studies, creating a Board of Graduate Studies in 1943 to attract graduate students.

Across Canada, perceptions of the role of universities shifted: reputation now rested as much on the quality and breadth of research as it did on teaching. The Cold War and Sputnik sharpened the incentive for research. This shift received a powerful external stimulus from the creation of federal funding agencies which treated university research as a national endeavour. The National Research Council (created in 1916) was joined by the Canada Council (1957) and the Medical Research Council (1960). The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) was launched in 1977, followed the next year by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). To a lesser extent, the provinces and private foundations fell into line. In 1960, Queen’s proudly reported that external funding of its research had topped one million dollars.

Canada was becoming a planned society in which research predetermined policy. Money flowed more freely towards university research as the national economy surged into a period of unbroken growth.

This new world of research funding provoked change at Queen’s. The onus on coordination and intensive competition prompted the birth of the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Queen’s in 1963 (“research” was added to the name in 1969). The new faculty affirmed the synergy of research and graduate studies.

By 1963, the university offered graduate degrees in 34 departments. These were segregated into four divisions covering biological sciences, humanities and social sciences, engineering sciences and mathematics, and physical sciences. With graduate scholarship monies, Queen’s could now cultivate a cohort of capable teaching assistants who might ease the burden of professors’ teaching and at the same time be deployed into research apprenticeships.

[engineering student]
Engineering student Warren Holmes studies strain pattern on a rock sample using a polariscope, 1963 (Queen's University Archives)

Throughout the late twentieth century, research at Queen’s emerged as a systematic endeavour that grew annually in breadth and financial impact. For the first time, the university attracted external support to sustain large, interdisciplinary projects. In 1975, federal funding was obtained to launch a project to collect, collate and publish all 18,000 pieces of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s correspondence. The Disraeli Project would run into the twenty-first century, producing multiple volumes that attracted global acclaim. In the 1980s, Queen’s became the linchpin of a multi-university project to determine the nature of subatomic neutrinos. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO, which has since grown to become SNOLAB) attracted more than $70 million in research funding and resulted not only in the construction of a sophisticated underground laboratory but also, in 2015, the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Queen’s physicist Dr. Arthur McDonald for his work in demonstrating “neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.”

To facilitate this surge in research, the university steadily built an administrative organization to support the grantsmanship and project management that research now entailed. An Office of Research Services (now University Research Services) guided researchers through the business of garnering financial support and subsequently managing projects. The Queen’s National Scholar program, initiated in 1985, allowed Queen’s to recruit top-notch young researchers, scholars such as chemical engineer Dr. Tom Harris and educational researcher Dr. Rena Upitis. In 1987, a commercialization office, PARTEQ, was established to help scholars protect their intellectual property and transfer the outcomes of their research to the marketplace. In 1991, Queen’s became a member institution in the so-called G10 (now the U15), a consortium of Canada’s ten top research universities dedicated to enhancing the vitality of the Canadian research system as a whole, through advocacy, priority-setting and collaboration.

The Campus Observatory, next to Carruthers Hall, around 1895 (Queen's University Archives)

A New Legacy

By the 1990s, the administrative symmetry of graduate studies and research began to weaken. Although with more than 2,500 full and part-time students by 1994, the recruitment, nurturing and administration of graduate students was becoming an exercise unto itself. The arrival of Dr. William Leggett that year as Queen’s new principal heralded a division of the two functions. Leggett, a biologist with a long record of NSERC funding as a fisheries oceanographer, recognized that university research had become “entrepreneurial.” Leggett was determined to create the “climate and conditions” that would place Queen’s in the top rank of research universities in Canada. To do this, in 1995 he placed graduate studies under a separate dean and created a Vice-Principal (Research).

The new research post went to Dr. Suzanne Fortier, a crystallographer with a shining administrative and research record. Fortier’s appointment coincided with the federal determination to invigorate Canada’s productivity through intensified research. In 1997, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) was launched to provide up to 40 per cent of research infrastructure costs. In 2000, the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program was launched, allowing universities to bid for specialized research positions. Fortier pursued these opportunities with vigour, seeing her job as that of a “facilitator.” An emphasis was placed on multi-disciplinary proposals. A research ethics board was established. Special centres, such as the Queen’s-RMC GeoEngineering Centre, were christened in partnership with government and the private sector.

The results were quick and impressive. By 1997-98, research funding was contributing 24 per cent of the university’s budget. In 2000-01, research funding at Queen’s topped $100 million for the first time. In 2000, Fortier became the Vice-Principal (Academic). (She would leave Queen’s in 2006 to head NSERC in Ottawa, eventually becoming principal of McGill University.) Her place was taken by Dr. Kerry Rowe, a civil engineer with a keen interest in environmental protection and geotechnical engineering. Responding to the imperatives of the CFI and CRC programs, Rowe unveiled a Strategic Research Plan (SRP) in 2003 to guide and support the research enterprise. The SRP was updated in 2012 under the leadership of the current Vice-Principal (Research) Dr. Steven Liss.

Research Today

[Tony Noble]
Tony Noble spoke at the announcement for the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which saw Queen's and research partners awarded $63.7 million for the creation of the Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre. September 2016

The results continued to be impressive. In the first decade of the new century, inflows of research funding at Queen’s annually averaged between $150 and $200 million. Queen’s perennially ranked #1 in Canada in the number of research awards and prizes per faculty member. Innovation Park officially opened in 2008 to serve as a platform for coordinating research with partners in the private sector. It is an invidious task to showcase Queen’s now sprawling research enterprise by selecting only a handful of successful endeavours, and therefore, suffice it to say, the research conducted at Queen’s has left an indelible mark on the Canadian, and international, landscape of scholarly progress.

Queen’s has lived up to the challenge put before it by Principal Wallace in 1945. It has taken on the crucial societal responsibility of researching Canada’s past, present and future on its “shoulders.” The present Vice-Principal (Research), environmental biotechnologist and microbiologist Steven Liss, and his team continue to push the edge of that frontier, and they are now preparing the SRP’s third iteration for 2017. Evidence of collective enterprise in research at Queen’s is everywhere – from Art McDonald’s beaming smile on the Nobel platform in Stockholm to the quiet, daily diligence of researchers in labs, archives and medical clinics spread across campus.

University Historian Duncan McDowall has just published volume III of the Queen’s University history covering the years 1961-2004 under the title Testing Tradition. Winner of the National Business Book Award, Dr. McDowall has published many books on Canada, Brazil and Bermuda.

[(e)AFFECT magazine cover]

Find more stories on the history of research at Queen's in our special 175th anniversary issue of (e)AFFECT.

Fall/Winter 2016 (PDF, 6 MB)