The Lives of Dalhousie University, Vol. 1, 1818-1925: Lord Dalhousie's College


338 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-1166-0
DDC 378.716'22




Reviewed by D.M.L. Farr

D.M.L. Farr is professor emeritus of history at Carleton University in
Ottawa and the editor of Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.


The last decade has seen a spate of good histories of Canadian
universities: Johnston’s on McMaster, Neatby and Gibson’s on
Queen’s, Frost’s on McGill, Reid’s on Mount Allison—all lively
two-volume works that do credit to their authors and their institutions.
P.B. Waite’s work on Dalhousie now joins their company. This is the
first of what will be a two-volume history of Dalhousie from its
founding by the enlightened lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, Lord
Dal-housie, in 1818, to 1980.

Lord Dalhousie’s aim was to create a provincial university that was
nonsectarian, with a democratic educational tradition modeled on that of
the University of Edinburgh. But those who came after him did not share
his vision. Dalhousie College became the victim of sectarian suspicions
and rivalries in education. For its first 50 years it languished. Twice
it began teaching and twice it gave up; not until 1863 did it commence a
continuous existence. Waite skilfully traces Dalhousie’s fragile
course through the tempestuous 19th-century politics of Nova Scotia. In
his discussion, there are many echoes of Nova Scotia’s current debate
over rationalizing curricula among its numerous centres of higher

Waite’s histories have always been noted for their vivid pen
portraits. Lord Dalhousie’s College is no exception. Archibald
MacMechan, R.C. Weldon, James De Mille, A.S. MacKenzie —there were
giants on the early Dalhousie faculty. Outside there were Joseph Howe
and Charles Tupper, both sympathetic to the goal of a single university
for Nova Scotia, and G.M. Grant, a Halifax minister before he went
“up” to Queen’s, deploring the narrow sectarian colleges that he
believed weakened Nova Scotia’s higher education. The stage might have
been small but the actors were men of substance who took the long view.

The “lives” of Dalhousie also include those of the students, and
the author has not neglected them. What they studied, what they thought,
how they played are all described here, with reminiscences often drawn
from the student newspaper, the Dalhousie Gazette, published since 1869.
Then there is Halifax, the “dirty disreputable old wooden town,” as
Archibald MacMechan called it, the vital setting for the story. The tone
of Halifax life in the last century is well brought out. There are
interesting illustrations, including

some fine sketches of Dalhousie buildings, c.1919, by Arthur Lismer,
some published for the first time.

Peter Waite has written a worthy tribute to the university where he has
taught for so many years. If there is a flaw in his account it is a
minor one. The smallest of Dalhousie’s faculties, dentistry (1908),
gets short shrift. It is mentioned only once or twice in passing and
seems to emerge from nowhere. The Dalhousie dentists are not going to
like this book, but most others, both inside and outside the university,
will find it of absorbing interest.


Waite, Peter B., “The Lives of Dalhousie University, Vol. 1, 1818-1925: Lord Dalhousie's College,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 13, 2024,