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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What could a first-rate professor at the University of Toronto expect to earn in 1853?

Answer In the hiring frenzy of the time, professors were being sought for some 350 per year.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

Additional staff for University College arrived in the fall of 1853. Two years earlier, advertisements had been placed in the British literary and scientific journal the Athenaeum for five new chairs for the University at £350 a year.

U of T wisely hired Wilson, but passed over two other young researchers who would also become famous scientists.

Whereas a decade earlier, Sir Charles Bagot had had difficulty recruiting faculty members, this time there were many first-rate applications from which to choose. Toronto was now a wealthy city of about 40,000 persons and was growing rapidly. The question is whether the University chose the best of the applicants.

There is no doubt that Daniel Wilson, one of those who arrived in 1853, was an excellent choice as the professor of English history and literature, said to be the first such professor in British North America.

Daniel Wilson
Daniel Wilson (1853)

His appointment was an indication of the shift of the University away from classics to literature and history. He was and continued to be an excellent scholar with wide interests in history, literature, anthropology, art, and archaeology. Before coming from Scotland to Canada, he had published two major works, Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time and The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. He is credited with having first used the word "prehistory." He is credited also with giving the first course in anthropology in the world.

Wilson never completed his university degree in Scotland, though just before coming to Canada, the University of St Andrews awarded him an honorary doctorate. It did not hurt his cause that the Governor General, Lord Elgin, as a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, was familiar with Wilson's work and career.

Wilson, after whom a University College residence is named, was a powerful intellectual force in the University, and later became its second president.

Wilson is credited with inventing the word "prehistory" and giving the first-ever anthropology course.

Wilson's journal and his letters to his wife reveal his views of Toronto and the University. (His wife and two children did not join him until 1854.) In a letter dated September 21, 1853, he gave his first impressions of the city: "It is a busy, bustling, active town ... bearing such evident marks of rapid increase that I should not wonder if ten years hence it be found to number nearer a hundred thousand ... Everything indicates wealth and prosperity. As to the shops, many of them are equal to the best in Edinburgh, and if a person has only money, he need want for nothing here that he desires." He pointed out that one could get a servant for "just £12 a year" and that he thought his own salary would soon be raised to £400 a year.

Toronto 54
Toronto (1854)

The University wasn't as fortunate with some of its other hiring choices. Among those who had applied for teaching positions along with Wilson but were passed over were physicist John Tyndall, 31, discoverer of the "Tyndall effect" and an associate of Bunsen and Faraday; and biologist Thomas Huxley, 27, who had included Darwin among his references. Huxley had optimistically hoped he would be appointed, writing, "Toronto is not very much out of the way, and the pay is decent and would enable me to devote myself wholly to my favourite pursuits." But both were passed over for older men.

Fifty years later, in 1901, Professor A.B. Macallum, the first Canadian-born member of the Royal Society of London, would state that if Huxley and Tyndall had been appointed, "Toronto, as a seat of learning, today would more than rival the leading universities of this Continent."

Wilson would come to dislike the man who hired him, President McCaul, Friedland goes on to write. But he got along well with the students, helping them in early 1854, to found the University College Literary and Scientific Society, the first student organization at U of T. He kept up his research, too, despite an inadequate library at U of T: his major work, Prehistoric Man, was published in 1862. It has been called "one of the great anthropological syntheses of the nineteenth century." Later, during his term as president of University College, Wilson would oversee the first admissions of women students, and the federation of Victoria and St. Michael's Colleges with U of T.

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