McGill Chemist New NRC Chairman – One Hundred Years Ago Today

Another 1921-2021 Centennial in the History of Canadian Science and Technology

First posted Friday, February 19, 2021 /  Yom shishi, 7 Adar, 5781

By David Orenstein

2021 is an opportunity for historians of Canadian Science and Technology to celebrate yet another centennial, including today’s commemoration of the February, 19,1921: <>

At the National Research Council (NRC), it was the year of three administrative chairmen: A.B. Macallum (Nov. 29, 1916 – Feb. 19, 1921), R.F. Ruttan (Feb. 19 – Aug. 18,1921), and R.A. Ross (Aug. 19, 1921 – May 29, 1922).

Archibald Byron Macallum (1858-1934) had been the first NRC Chairman since his November 29, 1916 appointment, having come from his position as Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto, but that’s another story. Robert Alexander Ross (1865-1936) was a consulting electrical engineer from Montreal and also an initial NRC member but that too is another story.

But today let’s celebrate the new Chairman, Robert Fulford Ruttan (1856-1930), who was the Director of Chemistry at Montreal’s McGill University.

Ruttan had come into the NRC even as they were laying the foundations, for on May 25, 1915 he was at the meeting in the office of Robert Borden’s Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir George Foster. They were joined by representatives of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, Queen’s University, the University of Toronto, and the Royal Canadian Institute. Also from McGill were Principal W. Peterson, the Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science Frank Dawson Adams, the Director of Physics H. T. Barnes , and Civil Engineering Professor H. M. Mackay. When the initial National Research Council’s membership was announced (November 29, 1916), Ruttan was there along with eight others, including Adams.

In 1912, Ruttan had become the first Director of the combined Medicine, Arts, and Applied Sciences programmes in Chemistry, holding the post until 1928. He had been recognised for both this administrative and scientific leadership with an Honourary Doctorate of Science from the University of Toronto in 1914 and had been elected President of the Royal Society of Canada in 1919.

As Chairman, he ushered through the House of Commons a Bill to establish a National Scientific Research Institute, but the Bill was defeated in the Senate.

In 1920, Ruttan had helped to found the Canadian Institute of Chemistry. Elected President of the British Society of Chemical Industry (BSCI), he saw that the BSCI came to Montreal in 1921 for its Annual Meeting, it’s first outside the UK. But that’s another centennial story.


Annotated Bibliography:

1) The Canadian Centenary Series, McClelland and Stewart Toronto:

Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook, 1974, Canada 1896-1921:A Nation Transformed, xiv + 412 pp., incl. 7 pp. Biblio., 51 pp. Notes, 14 pp. Index

Gives an overall setting of the time in Canada and the lead up to 1921, especially World War I. There are several references to Sir George Foster in his role as the Minister for Trade and Commerce.

2) Mel Thistle, 1966, The Inner Ring: The Early History of the National Research Council of Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, xxxiii + 435 pp., incl. Ref. list in each ch., 13 pp. Index

Thistle largely gives  us a look at the administrative history of the Council, from the planning stages in the early years of World War I up until 1935. The book is arranged chronologically, each chapter starting with a general introduction to the period followed by selection of the relevant original documents, mostly correspondence.

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