Founding of McGill University Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The institution of higher learning that was launched by James McGill’s bequest of land and money began slowly but eventually developed into one of the leading universities in North America and one particularly noted for its medical school.

Summary of Event

During James McGill’s lifetime as a fur trader and merchant in colonial Montreal, the Canadian Education Act of 1801 established the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning , which theoretically provided for the future establishment of Canadian institutions of secondary education and higher learning. However, it was not until McGill’s death in 1813 and the probating of his will that this provision showed some promise of fruition. McGill left his estate of Burnside, a forty-six-acre plot with a manor house valued at £15,000, as well as £10,000 in cash, to serve as an endowment for a nondenominational, anglophone college, provided that a university or college was established within ten years of his death. The founding of McGill University is officially remembered as coinciding with the date of McGill’s will. McGill University[MacGill University] Quebec;education Canada;education Education;Canadian Montreal;McGill University[MacGill University] Sucre, Antonio José de [kw]Founding of McGill University (1813) [kw]McGill University, Founding of (1813) [kw]University, Founding of McGill (1813) McGill University[MacGill University] Quebec;education Canada;education Education;Canadian Montreal;McGill University[MacGill University] Sucre, Antonio José de [g]Canada;1813: Founding of McGill University[0610] [c]Education;1813: Founding of McGill University[0610] [c]Organizations and institutions;1813: Founding of McGill University[0610] McGill, James Bethune, John Dawson, John William

François Desrivières, a nephew of Mrs. McGill’s first husband, contested the will. While the case was in court, however, a governing board of the Royal Institution was set up in 1818, and a royal charter was obtained for the proposed college in 1821, within the ten-year period provided in McGill’s will. The land and estate were finally surrendered on March 16, 1829, but the endowment funds were not settled until 1835.

In 1829, Archdeacon George Jehoshaphat Mountain Mountain, George Jehoshaphat became the first principal of McGill College and stated that his first intention was to “engraft” a medical institution to the proposed faculty of arts. There had been a Montreal General Hospital since 1815, and in 1823, it had been renamed the Montreal Medical Institution and moved to a building at 20 St. James Street, which served as the formally organized teaching arm of the hospital. In 1832, the hospital and the college formally merged, and the doctors of the former were constituted as the faculty of medicine of the latter. The medical program was the only successful academic program of the institution until 1835.

John Bethune Bethune, John , rector of the parish of Montreal, was appointed principal of McGill College in 1835 and served in that position for the next decade. He and his family occupied the Burnside estate in 1836 as the Principal’s House. The manor house would later serve as both a faculty and a student residence. The medical faculty lapsed between 1836 and 1838 as a result of political troubles, but medical instruction resumed in 1838. The arts faculty at McGill College was formally inaugurated in 1843, though by 1844, student enrollment had declined to only nine students. A reorganization of the Board of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning forced out Bethune, though he provided for the development of a future faculty of law with the appointment to the faculty of Justice William Badgley in 1844.

Edinburgh University graduate William Turnbull Leach was appointed as the first professor of classical literature in 1846, and Dr. Abraham de Sola, rabbi of the Montreal Spanish and Portuguese Jewish congregation, was appointed as lecturer in Hebrew and oriental languages in 1848, becoming a professor in 1853. As the only nondenominational institutions in Canada, McGill College and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia admitted students and appointed professors of various faiths.

Although many administrative records were lost when the medical building was destroyed by fire Fires;McGill College[MacGill College] in 1907, it is known that McGill College awarded its first medical degree in 1833, and there seem to have been between thirty and fifty-six medical students enrolled throughout the 1840’s. The charter was amended and a new board of governors appointed in 1852, and a new building, Burnside Hall (named in honor of the original McGill manor house), was constructed to house a new high school department, as well as the faculty of arts. Members of the medical faculty had already, at their own expense, erected a medical facility at 15 Cote Street, which they then rented back to the college.

The McDonald Engineering Building of McGill University toward the end of the nineteenth century.

(Library of Congress)

An 1853 prospectus defined McGill College as anglophone, broadly Protestant, and focused on professional education. John William Dawson Dawson, John William became principal of McGill College and guided the opening of McGill Normal School in 1857. It was later renamed the Macdonald School for Teachers, then the Institute of Education, and then the Faculty of Education. Thirty-five of the initial forty students of the Normal School were women, even though women were not admitted to other programs of the college for several decades.

At the time that Canada gained its independence in 1867, 48 students were enrolled in the law school, 68 students were in the arts, and 177 were in the school of medicine, reflecting the preeminence of the medical program at McGill. Indeed, beginning in the later decades of the nineteenth century and continuing into the twenty-first century, the McGill School of Medicine attracted and graduated significant numbers of American, and later international, students to study in its acclaimed medical programs.


Although 1813 remains the official date of the founding of McGill University, it took two decades for the college to begin holding classes, when an existing medical institution was “engrafted” into the college and began educating future doctors. The college had no students in the arts for another decade thereafter. The original charter of the institution provided for only five faculty members, including the principal—a limitation that, combined with Desrivières’s lawsuits, artificially constricted the development of the young school.

Despite this slow beginning, McGill University developed into one of the leading universities in North America by the end of the nineteenth century, noted especially for its medical and law schools. Located in a traditionally bilingual province, McGill is also notable for being primarily an anglophone institution in a primarily French-speaking city. Although at times throughout its history it has defined itself as broadly Protestant, in fact it has been a remarkably nondenominational institution that has attracted faculty, staff, and students from a variety of religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds. The old McGill Burnside estate, whose boundary ran down the middle of the present University Street, has developed into a downtown campus of 104 buildings on eighty acres. James McGill, the Scottish immigrant and benefactor who came to political and economic prominence in colonial Montreal and whose name will forever be identified with the university, is buried in front of the steps to the arts building.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frost, Stanley Brice. McGill University: For the Advancement of Learning, 1895-1971. 2 vols. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1980-1984. The definitive history of McGill University, written by a retiring vice principal who also served as dean of the faculty of divinity (later the Religious Studies Department) and dean of the faculty of graduate studies and research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gillett, Margaret, and Ann Beer, eds. Our Own Agendas: Autobiographical Essays by Women Associated with McGill University. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. First-person narratives written by women of the faculty, staff, and student body of the university.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Murray G. The University: The Anatomy of Academe. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. Includes discussion of distinctly nondenominational character of McGill and Dalhousie Universities, as opposed to most other institutions in the Canadian provinces in the first half of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, J. Donald., et al., eds. Canadian Education: A History. Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall/Canada, 1970. Includes valuable discussion of the Canadian Education Act of 1801, which provided an unfunded mandate for schools of higher education throughout Canada.

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