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McGill News
ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Brittain Missing

I must protest the article "A Leafy Legacy" by Bronwyn Chester in the summer issue of McGill News. There is no mention at all of the man who worked hard and long to establish trees, particularly the birches and the "Blossom Corner" in the Morgan Arboretum. I refer to Dr. William Brittain, long-time Vice-Principal and Dean at Macdonald Campus, and, briefly, Acting Principal of the University. Before and after his retirement, he spent many hours in the arboretum and personally acquired many of the exotic trees now growing there. He and Bob Watson planted the trees and cared for them for many years.


Bill Brittain was another Maritimer, born in New Brunswick and worked in his early years in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. He built a cottage on a Nova Scotian lake and there he planted trees, many of them exotic, the same species as those now found in the Morgan Arboretum. It is unfortunate that the site is difficult to access -- but that is the way he wanted it.

Vernon R. Vickery, BSc(Agr)'49, MSc'57, PhD'64
Emeritus Curator, Lyman Entomological Museum and Research Laboratory

Ed. note: Thanks to Dr. Vickery for pointing out the oversight. In 1911, Brittain was among Macdonald College's first graduates to be awarded a degree in agriculture. In her 1989 book about Macdonald, Helen R. Neilson recounts that in the later years of his deanship (1934-55), Brittain camped out at the arboretum now and then, which meant staff members sometimes had "to slog across a muddy field to consult with him. Strangers who sought him in the arboretum were greeted by a worker in muddy boots whom they did not recognize and who was known on occasion to rid himself of their presence by saying: 'The dean has just gone off that way.'" A plaque honouring Dr. Brittain was installed beside the road leading into the arboretum in 1971.

Whither In Memoriam?

Received the McGill News fall edition today. October 9 marks my 80th birthday, so the first page I turn to is the In Memoriam. Did we all survive the summer, as I do not see it in the current issue?

D. E. Joan Strong, BA'42
Halifax, N.S.

I have just received, read and digested the fall edition of the McGill News, which takes quite a while to get Down Under via snail mail. But that's OK, it just makes it all the more interesting to read -- the anticipation, I mean. And interesting it is. Thoroughly enjoyable. However, one most interesting feature was missing: In Memoriam. To us older graduates (1948 for me), it's a most important feature to be able to keep up with my classmates' and confreres' departure to new fields.

What happened? I hope you haven't dropped it -- I've been following this feature for over 50 years.

Gordon M. Pfeiffer, BCom'48
Buderim, Queensland, Australia

I have been meaning to write you for some time, as I receive two copies of the McGill News which I still read with interest. One copy is correctly addressed to me and the other to Hon. Mr. Justice Albert M. Walsh, which no doubt results from my bad writing in mailing one of my annual donations to the Alma Mater Fund! I have long since retired from the Federal Court as a Deputy Judge, and I will be 90 years old next June 30.

I have special personal interest in the McGill News since, as your archives will show, I was editor of it for some ten years during World War II and thereafter. During the war years, Robert Fetherstonhaugh, who was crippled and confined to home, kept track of all McGill graduates in the services -- their awards, promotions and casualties, sending me in good time for publication all his material, including photographs which filled about 2/3 of each issue. Another regular contributor was Wilder Penfield, who not only headed the Montreal Neurological Institute but also wrote several great books. He would contribute memoirs of former McGill physicians who had received major awards elsewhere in the world or who had died.

My wife would help me in assembling and pasting up the dummies of each issue, writing suitable headlines, etc. to get everything ready for the printers. I received a small quarterly honorarium for my work. I was practising law in Montreal at the time and giving night courses at Sir George Williams on Mansfield Street, now Concordia University.

While still an undergraduate (BA'33, Gold Medal in Economics and Political Science, BCL'36), I worked on the McGill Daily, doing a variety of writing and eventually becoming managing editor, so that was my background for my editorial work at the McGill News. The late Maysie MacSporran, BA'27, MA'30, who later became Principal of Miss Edgar's in Montreal, was a member of the Board.

The principal change in the News now, one which I regret but can understand, is that you no longer print obituary notices. It was my main source of information about deaths of people I knew who are now scattered all over the world.

The articles you now publish in the News are interesting, keep up the good work!

Allison A. M. Walsh, BA'33, BCL'36
Ottawa, Ont.

I always look forward to receiving the McGill News, and one of the first places I look is the In Memoriam page, which kept me up to date on my friends and former classmates. I was very disappointed to learn that you are no longer printing the In Memoriam section. I hope that this was an oversight and that it will appear in the next and following issues of the News.

Marion (Martin) Staples, BSc(Hec)'46
Sudbury, Ont.

Ed note: Boy, did we ever hear from our readers! These are just a few of the dozens of letters and phone calls we received after the last issue. Yes, we did pull the In Memoriam page. The day we went to press was September 11, and the magazine contained a two-page interview with a McGill professor about prospects for peace in the Middle East. On that day, it was not clear who or what was behind the World Trade Center bombings, but there was speculation that it was related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. So we cut the piece from the magazine. Pages can only be removed in groups of four, so we also cut Reviews and In Memoriam because they were stand-alone pages.

I was at pains to explain what we did and why in the last issue's Editor's Notebook, a regular feature which appears on page 3 of every edition, accompanied by a rather fetching photo of yours truly. We apologize for upsetting so many readers (one even threatened to withdraw a donation), but I may be more distressed than any of you -- after all, I have solid proof that a lot of people skip my hard wrought pearls of wisdom and head right for the back of the book. It seems odd to say it, but I suppose some readers will be pleased that, as promised, this issue contains twice as many obituaries.

News stirs family memories

As a parent of a McGill graduate, I take great pleasure in becoming engrossed while digesting the total contents of each issue of the News.

I serve as President of the Snowdon Oldtimers Association, an offshoot of the Snowdon Major Fastball League, which played before large crowds on the West Island of Montreal in the '40s through the late '60s. I often choose McGill grads as topics for segments of our monthly luncheons. Their exploits are legendary and, I am sure, inspirational to our group. A recent guest was former Redmen football coach Charlie Baillie.

Just as an aside, each time there is a mention in the News of the Roddick Gates, it triggers memories of a difficult period in my Dad's life. I am now 76, but vividly recall his struggles with working conditions in the pre-war 1930s. Because his boss had to be home each evening to attend to his invalid wife, Dad worked every single night for years, and his walking route home from Cavanagh's Pharmacy on McGill College near St. Catherine Street was through the McGill grounds to our home on Jeanne Mance near Pine Avenue. Wrapped in his fur-collared coat, those hallowed Roddick portals briefly framed Dad as he passed through each dark night and made his way toward Milton and onward. This is a somewhat sad but integral part of the archival memories of the Walker family.

Continued success.

S.A. (Steve) Walker
LaSalle, Que.

False staff


In the fall edition of the McGill News, on page 24, is an interesting article on marijuana and its uses in medicine. It is illustrated by two serpents entwined around a winged staff. This is the symbol for Hermes or Mercury, the messenger god, sometimes called the god of "speed and greed." It is used worldwide, including places like Greece -- where they should know -- as the symbol for telegraph and electric services.

The staff of Aesculapius is the symbol for medicine worldwide (except of course in the U.S., where an error was made in the early 1800s that the Americans are unwilling to admit) as the symbol for medicine. It consists of a single serpent on a wingless staff.

McGill is Canadian, not American. The Canadian Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada use the correct symbol. It is embarrassing when McGill, historically Canada's pre-eminent university and with a pretty good classics department, publishes an error such as this.

Jeremy Brown, BSc'72, MDCM'77
via email

Ed. note: According to Public Services Librarian Deanna Cowan of McGill's Health Sciences Library, "better people than the McGill News have confused these symbols." She sent us excerpts from a number of reference works, most -- but not all -- of which agree that the term "caduceus" refers to the staff of Hermes or Mercury (two snakes, with wings). The word is derived from the Greek kerykeion, meaning a herald's staff, since Hermes was indeed the messenger of the gods. Apparently caduceus is also often used -- incorrectly -- to refer to the staff of Aesculapius (one snake, no wings). The caduceus was supposedly first used as a medical emblem by Johann Froeben, a 16th-century medical book publisher, as a title page design. A little later, Sir William Butts, physician to Henry VIII, used it on his coat of arms.

Speaking of better people, the great Sir William Osler, MDCM1872, wrote this about Aesculapius in 1921: "Shorn of his divine attributes, he remains our patron saint, our emblematic God of Healing whose figure with the serpents appear in our seals and charters." Perhaps we've only added to the confusion, but we can make one thing clear: goofs in the News really shouldn't be blamed on poor old McGill.

Cool Chemists

The magazine brings many interesting facets of the University to light. Among those I believe are newsworthy (and I can't remember ever seeing it mentioned in the News) is the McGill Office for Chemistry and Society. It is only a few years old, but already it is carving out a unique niche for itself in public education in chemistry. There is simply no other entity like it in Canada, and is a model for anything similar elsewhere. Here is another case of McGill taking the lead and showing everyone else how it's done. Information is available on its web site www.mcgill.ca/chempublic or by calling 398-6238, and its director is Professor Joseph Schwarcz.

James Sangster, BSc'59, MSc'66, DipEd'72
via email

Ed. note: The News did cover the 1999 opening of the MOCS, established as a natural outgrowth of two decades of efforts by Schwarcz, BSc'69, PhD'74, and colleagues David Harpp, current chair of the Chemistry Department, and Ariel Fenster, PhD'73, to bring everyday chemistry to the public through lectures, exhibits, and their "Magic of Chemistry" stage show. Schwarcz says the office now fields between 100 and 150 phone calls and emails each week and coordinates a variety of continuing education and outreach projects, including monthly presentations in English and French for visiting high school students.

Humphrey or not?


On a number of occasions now in your magazine, John Humphrey has been written of as the person who put together the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To my knowledge as a longtime human rights worker, he drafted the document by hand (people then did not have computers), but the ideas came from a committee of 18 members headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the real force behind the document.

One of her granddaughters once expressed great dismay at a meeting in New York when she saw the prominence given to John Humphrey, who she informed me was called in on it all after the whole procedure was well in place. RenŽ Cassin is supposed to have contributed many of the ideas and much of the form, and I have been told the Spanish scholar, Osvalda (sic) Aranha, should have been given much more credit than he has been for what was included in the document and for how it was included.

I was once on a panel at Dalhousie University with John Humphrey and asked him about the credit he was being given by his countrymen, and his reply was something to the effect, "Well, you know how these things are." But I am not sure I do.

Jennifer Wade
Vancouver, B.C.

Ed. note: We put the matter of the role of former Dean of Law John Humphrey, BCom'25, BA'27, BCL'29, PhD'45, LLD'76, to John Hobbins, BA'66, MLS'68, who is Associate Director of Libraries at McGill. He is also Humphrey's literary executor. His response: "Humphrey's claim to fame is that, at the request of the executive of the Human Rights Commission [Eleanor Roosevelt (U.S.), P.C. Chang (China), and Charles Malik (Lebanon)], he prepared the first draft of the Declaration in 1947 for the consideration of a Drafting Committee, drawn from the Human Rights Commission. This Drafting Committee subsequently gave Humphrey's draft to the French delegate RenŽ Cassin to revise.

The 'ideas' for the Humphrey draft did not come from members of the Commission, but rather from a large number of documents that the UN Secretariat had collected, including, for example, the English Bill of Rights and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The molding of the early drafts into the final text was the work of very many people, especially on the Human Rights Commission and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. All of this has been dealt with in a recent scholarly work that decisively answers all questions about the relative roles of the various protagonists in the drafting -- Mary Ann Glendon's A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House 2001).

To the best of my knowledge, Osvaldo Aranha (a Brazilian politician, not a Spanish scholar) had little if anything to do with the Declaration. He was not on the Human Rights Commission or the Third Committee, and was no longer part of the Brazilian delegation when the Declaration was adopted in 1948. Finally, regardless of what may have been said at Dalhousie, Humphrey received very little credit for his activities during his lifetime although there has been far more recognition since his death."

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