Origin of the species at Redpath Museum

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

One of the things that all schoolchildren find fascinating is the origin of our species through evolution.  It is no accident that we share four limbs, two eyes, two ears, and so forth with, for example, our brother and sister species of dogs and cats.  We are very closely related.  If we look back far enough, we can see how we are related to fish and plants.  But there is an earlier point at which we can look back and say, OK, that is when and where we started, these are modern people like you and me.  Picking where modern people started is of course arbitrary, but doing so provides a way to express those values to which we aspire, and what it means to be human.   For example, picking as modern people our early progenitors who only had stone tools does not ring true.  Perhaps a good time to pick is around 50,000 years ago when art, painting, jewelry and ritual gifts became widespread.  It is easy to imagine those people in communities with love and faith and bickering, with families of respectful and disrespectful spouses, children, and pets.  It is easy to imagine those people as the mothers and fathers of our modern age, as we are little different inside, notwithstanding our rocket ships, our color TVs, and other innovations.

The Redpath Museum is a fine place to contemplate this.  As well it provides a fine place to contemplate the origins of McGill.  We are presently celebrating the 190th anniversary of the founding of McGill in 1821.  But it is an odd date to pick, as the University was then inactive until 1829 when the Faculty of Medicine started.  But in fact the Medical Faculty’s origin is probably better identified with the Montreal Medical Institution, founded in 1823, which later joined McGill in 1829.  This history has little resonance or recognition for us at McGill across almost 200 years.  I would propose a different time to identify our origin as a modern University.  Yes, picking where McGill started is of course arbitrary, but doing so provides a way to express those values to which we aspire, and what it means to teach, learn and do research here.   The first golden age of McGill can be traced to William Dawson, a naturalist, paleontologist, and geologist.  He was McGill’s principal for thirty-eight years, from 1855 to 1893, and started science at McGill, working to secure funds to make McGill a success.   The turn of the century brought about the culmination of that effort: McGill became one the world’s great Universities due to Dawson’s work.

Redpath Museum, 1910

The Redpath Museum: Then...

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

...and now. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

The rock on which our modern University was founded is here, that place most associated with William Dawson’s career, namely Redpath Museum.  It remains an eclectic and vibrant center on campus.  It not only has teaching labs, and offers endowed outreach activities, but it has in-house scientists conducting ground-breaking research on dinosaurs, on frogs and toads, on biodiversity, and other topics.  I believe it is unique in North America.  Look around, here are McGill’s origins. We can easily imagine our scientific predecessors in this building, arguing and agreeing, bickering with their respectful and disrespectful colleagues and students, addressing the scientific topics of the day.  We can easily imagine it, because we do this at present here and across our campuses.  Congratulations to Redpath on your 130th anniversary, McGill would be a very different place without you.

Redpath Museum, exterior view. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

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