Founder : James McGill was born October 6th in Glasgow in 1744. He was educated at Glasgow University. At age 22, in 1766 he immigrated to Canada. He first sought his fortune first as a fur trader with the Cree of Northern Quebec. After setbacks in the woods however, he shifted his entrepreneurial attention south of the Great Lakes in the 1770s and 1780s, diversifying his holdings to include land speculation.1 He then established himself as a Montreal merchant, working exclusively under his own establishment, Todd, McGill & Co. This partnership acted in general trade & exported Canadian goods to Britain. McGill was a magistrate of Montreal and a member of the first parliament of Lower Canada, also serving as a member of the Governor's Executive Council. During the War of 1812, he served as colonel in the 1st Battalion of the Montreal militia, engaged actively in countering the Fenian menace against the British and the United States's strategy to annex Canada, pursuant to a policy of manifest destiny following the American Revolution.

History: In 1813, McGill passed away. His will left the 46-acre farms and estate, along with 10,000 £ to establish in Montreal a “Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning". McGill was convinced that Quebec's English-descended population were the key to the political survival of Canada. McGill's heirs contested his will and the litigation delayed the opening of the McGill College, built on Burnside Place on the founder's farm, until 1820. Finally chartered in 1821, McGill began to recruit its professors and staff, and then in 1829 began its pedagogical practice. The collection of texts for the purpose of establishing a library had also begun as early as 1821. Medicine was its first school, but a Faculty of Arts followed in 1843, succeeded by modern languages, commercial studies, and sciences. That year also saw the construction of the central and east Arts buildings. Finally, in 1884, women were admitted. In 1855, Sir William Dawson (a geologist from Pictou, Nova Scotia) became principal of the University and immediately embarked on an ambitious project of restoration, expansion and fund-raising. He sought out Montreal's wealthiest merchants and politician : Sir William Molson, Sir William Macdonald, Sir Peter Redpath, and Lord Strathcona. Each saw fit to hand over much needed land and helped fund elaborate new facilities like the Redpath Museum (1880), Macdonald Physics Building (1893), the Redpath Library (1893), the Macdonald Chemistry Building (1896), the Macdonald Engineering Building (1907), and the Strathcona Medical Building. The first Library School was founded in Canada in 1904.

The University facilities: McGill University is located amid forty acres on the southern side of the Mount Royal in downtown Montréal. Originally no more than a small cluster of buildings on farmland beside a gurgling stream, since its founding in 1821, the University now centres around 11 major faculty areas & 10 specialized schools, 16 libraries (there were once 22) spread across the main campus. In addition, there are dozens of research facilities, five teaching hospitals, three theological schools. McGill also owns a sprawling but underutilised agricultural campus, Macdonald College, on 1600 acres overlooking the shores of Lake St-Louise in the West Island. Over 30 000 students are now enrolled at McGill.

A note regarding the Libraries: The backbone of any serious university research institution is necessarily a wide-ranging, historically comprehensive library collection and computer facilities to augment that stored knowledge. McGill’s sixteen libraries all collect in specialized spheres of human knowledge, largely to support the research activities of particular departments. These include :
  • Blacker - Lauterman : 300, 000 vol. on the history, development and criticism of art & architecture,
  • Blacker-Wood : 114, 000 vol. on biology and genetics,
  • Education : 90, 000 vol. on pedagogical theory and practice,
  • Edward Rosenthal: 8, 000 v. on specialized branches of math and statistical theory,
  • Health Sciences : 250, 000 v. on medicine, dentistry and nursing,
  • Howard Ross: 300, 000 v. on business, economics and management theory,
  • McLennan - Redpath: approx. 700, 000 v. in all areas of the humanities.
  • Islamic Studies : 100, 000 v. dealing with the history and development of Islam, with materials in English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Indonesian & Urdu.
  • Nahum Gelber : 155, 000 v. devoted to various branches of law and legislative process,
  • Osler : 40, 000 v. on the history and development of the medical sciences, from ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages, into the Enlightenment, incl. a large collection of incunabula (152 v.) on herbals, demonology and treatises on the Black Death.
  • Schulich Physical Sciences and Engineering Library : 250, 000 v. on all branches of engineering, chemistry, computer sciences, geology, physics, aeronautics, robotics and the history of science.
  • Rare Books: 250, 000 v., 1000 manuscripts, 9000 boxes of archival papers and autograph letters, 120, 000 lithographic/photographic prints, and 6000 historic maps. The strong points of the collection are history, literature, the history of ideas (philosophy and religion), travel and exploration, and the history of the book. Babylonian stone seals dated c. 2275 B.C. are the oldest items in the collection.2 Other highlights include a) the Redpath tracts - 20,000 pamphlets illustrating the religious, political, literary, scientific and social history of the British Isles, from 1561 to 1900; b) the Blackadder-Lauterman collection, early editions of architectural masters such as Vitruvius, Alberti, Serlio, Palladio, Piranesi, Scamozzi, Vasari, Vignola, du Cerceau, Blondel, Perrault, and Ledoux; c) the collection of 130 incunabula, incl. the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499) and Henry Parker's Dives and Pauper (Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1486); d) the 88 v. Edward Gorey collection; and e) the 225 Medieval European manuscript books, from the 8th to 18th c. Most of the manuscripts are monastery material: with seven Books of Hours, two breviaries, an altar missal, an epistle book and an antiphonal. There are also monastic commentaries on vellum of Aristotle and late copies of Cicero and Ovid.

1 McGill’s first winter in Indian country was in 1766, supervising the dispatch of canoes and starting to trade on his own. Ten years later, he and his mentor Andrew Todd formed Todd, McGill and Co., specializing in imports/exports, concentrating on Mississippi and Lake Michigan business. McGill was inducted into the illustrious Montreal Beaver Club in 1785. In the early 1780s, however, a massive smallpox outbreak among the southern trading tribes made the fur trade fairly perilous. Then, in 1790, Montreal merchants secured the repeal of the trade ordinance of 1777 - which meant for the first time since early colonization there was virtually unrestricted trade in liquor. McTavish, Frobisher and Co. becomes the official supplier of the entire region, but many smaller distributors. McGill choose this time to bow out of the fur trade. See entry on James McGill at the “Fur Trade in Canada” website of the McGill Digital Libraries project at
2 I also recommend you have a look, if you get the chance, at the Japanese Prayer pagoda (you’ll have to ask for that, it’s kept in the safe). The Hypnerotomachia is also probably something you should see, again you’ll have to ask for it explicitly. Given the book’s worth around $150 K, they have to lock it up too. Its still one of the most famous books ever printed with the earliest series of large woodcuts made for any book at the time. They've also some incredible early editions of Diderot's Encyclopedia des Arts... and just about everything ever published by or about Richard Francis Burton.
1. McGill University Virtual Tour:
2. Frost, S. B. “McGill University” and “James McGill” in The Canadian Encyclopaedia -, accessed: March 12, 2002 (10:20AM)
3. McGill University Libraries:
4. Frost, Stanley B. James McGill of Montreal. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

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