Day Three: 1921 Toronto AAAS

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

First posted Wednesday, December 29, 2021 / Yom shishi, 25 Tevet, 5782.

By David Orenstein

This is the fourth blog post in a six-part series commemorating the centennial of the 1921 Toronto meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Thursday, December 29, 1921:


For Section L Historical and Philological Sciences, there was only one “Thursday Morning Session, December 29, 10.0 a.m.; Room 50, Main Building”, the iconic University College. Five papers were delivered, with Walter Libby (University of Pittsburgh), as acting secretary and Wiliam A. Locey, (Northwestern University) presiding:

John Playfair McMurrich, “Leonard da Vinci – Artist or Anatomist?”

Walter Libby, “History as the Record of Human Possessions”

William A. Locey, (Northwestern University), “The Hortus Sanitatis (1491) and Related Books”

George Brett, “The Function and the Method of a History of Idea”

Louis Karpinski, “Herman von Helmholtz Centennial”.

Brett’s efforts in History of Science are documented in the University of Toronto Archives:

  • In 1908: “G. S. Brett, the new lecturer at Trinity, is a contributor to Nature and the author of a book on Gassendi.”
  • October 1921: “His recent three-volume History of Psychology was very favourably reviewed.”, -January, 1924: “Professor G. S. Brett’s lecture ‘Astronomy and Mysticism’ went back to when man found himself standing on the earth and facing the stars and was driven to invent a reason for his astonishing position.”
  • August, 1924, he was Vice-President for Section J, Psychology, British Association, speaking on “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

Brett, by the way, has a substantial role in Hugh Hood’s novel Reservoir Ravine, where the plot line begins in the fall of 1921 at the University of Toronto.

Newly elected section secretary, Frederick E. Brasch (James Jerome Hill Library, St. Paul), in a five-column summary of the History of Science sessions, proudly asserted, “Section L assures the future of the History of Science Movement in the United States, growing steadily, with our colleges, universities and technical schools placing it in the curriculum of science and technology.”

“The History of Science section had been organized on a temporary basis at the American Association’s Chicago meeting, December, 1920. At the Toronto meeting it was formally organized, and recognized by Council as a subsection in Section L (Historical and Philological)”.

Its establishment had been debated. Group theorist Miller appeared in Science, replying to “objections raised February 18 by Louis C. Karpinski, (University Michigan) to the name ‘Historical and Philological Sciences’.” Miller cited the work of “philologists who opened for mathematical historians rich fields by deciphering the cuneiform inscriptions of the ancient Babylonians and the writings of the ancient Egyptians. If modern mathematicians and astronomers could work harmoniously in the same section, then historians of science have nothing to fear from philologists.”

The Association’s permanent secretary, Dr. Burton E. Livingston, had appointed a small local Toronto organising committee: anatomist John Playfair McMurrich, who was elected President of the whole Association in Toronto; and philosopher George Sydney Brett, chairing the Hotels subcommittee.

The History of Science Society would be founded in 1924. And many of our dramatis personae would return to U of T in August 1924 for the co-ordinated meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Mathematical Congress, brought to the University of Toronto by Mathematician John Charles Fields.

But that’s another story!

Engineering (M) also met on Thursday morning, when George Clark (Chief Designer, Toronto Harbor Commission) gave an illustrated address, “Toronto Harbor Development”. Then Robert Ross (Chairman of NSERC’s predecessor) led a discussion on “Scientific and Industrial Research in Canada”, emphasising the carbonising of Western Canadian lignites. Finally, H. K. Wicksteed, the “Railway Development of Canada”, with an economic POV.


Engineering continued after lunch, with Oil Exploration in Western Canada and Coal Mining in Alberta, before heading to Convocation Hall, where Sir Adam Beck (Chairman of the Hydroelectric Commission of Ontario) spoke to a general session of the Association, under Section M auspices, at 4 o’clock. It was well attended and illustrated by motion pictures. Beck compared the cost of Niagara hydro power in Windsor at 3 ½ cents per kilowatt hour with Detroit where steam generated electricity at 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

The mathematics programme was especially dear to Fields’ heart, and Section A Mathematics held a joint session on Thursday afternoon, with the American Mathematical Society (AMS)and the Mathematical Association of America, (MAA) in Room 8 of the Main Building.

Retiring Vice-President, R. D. Curtiss (Northwestern University) gave the lecture “A Mechanical Analogy in the Theory of Equations”, later published in Science. Then R. M. Yerkes of the U.S. National Research Council, discussed their “research information service” and H.E. Slaught (University of Chicago) gave a programme for “subsidy funds for mathematical projects”. Arnold Dresden (University of Wisconsin) read the abstract for R. D. Carmichael’s (University of Illinois) “Algebraic guides to transcendental problems”.

The sectional committee nominated George Abram Miller (University of Illinois) to be the Vice-President for Section A Mathematics at the December 1922 American Association Meeting in Boston, as Otto Klotz had been for Section D.


“The Thursday evening conversazione at Hart House was one of the greatest social functions ever held in Toronto and was unique in the history of the association…. [In] the theater beneath the quadrangle… [there were] rendered Irish, Scotch and English [songs].” The Hart House String Quartette performed in the Music Room. “The band of the 48th Highlanders played… [with] the pipes promenad[ing] the corridors.” And so on, for much merriment.



Florian Cajori: H of S & AAAS, SCIENCE Feb. 18, 1921.

George Abram Miller: H of S & AAAS, SCIENCE Feb. 28, 1921.

Florian Cajori: Section L Name, Science 1921

1921 Toronto AAAS Centennial Blog Posts:

Introducing the 1921-2021 Centennials, January 6, 2021.

Jennie A. Kinnear, October 8, 2021.

Happy 131st Birthday Jenny, December 12, 2021.

Fields and Friends as Architecture, December 17, 2021.

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