It is rare for a donor to be able to bask in the glow of a Nobel Prize. And given that the Nobel Prize did not even exist back in 1890, when Sir William Christopher Macdonald so generously endowed the Macdonald Chair in Experimental Physics, he can hardly have anticipated the renown it would bring to McGill. But without him, it is doubtful that a small university in Montreal would have been able to attract a rising star like Ernest Rutherford to conduct the groundbreaking experiments on radioactivity that won him his fame and the 1908 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Macdonald’s philanthropy, along with that of his heirs, Howard and Walter Stewart and their families, continues to have an impact today in the form of the Macdonald-Stewart Foundation, which has kept up the legacy of quiet, practical support for higher education at McGill and elsewhere.
Nearly a dozen buildings on McGill’s two campuses bear one or both of the Macdonald and Stewart names, more than a dozen endowed chairs exist thanks to the families’ endowments, and hundreds of students have studied at McGill on Macdonald-Stewart scholarships.
Sir William was, after James McGill himself, the most important donor in McGill’s first century. Queen Victoria called him “the greatest philanthropist in education in the British Empire” when presenting him with the knighthood that he modestly tried to refuse.
Born in PEI in 1831, he ceased his formal education at the age of 16, working for a time in Boston and New York before arriving in Montreal in 1852 and establishing his business empire soon after.
Sir William’s gifts to McGill grew with his fortune. The first of his many major gifts — for a chemistry lab in 1887 — was characteristic of his pragmatic style: donating to departments or individuals where there was a demonstrated need. He followed up three years later with huge gifts to the Faculty of Law, buildings for mechanical engineering and physics, and the chair in experimental physics that would be occupied by Ernest Rutherford. These totalled $800,000 — an amount worth more than $18-million today — but he was only getting started.
Sir William’s greatest and arguably most forwardlooking contribution to McGill came in 1907 with the opening of Macdonald College. With its schools of agriculture, household science and education, the college contained the trinity of home, farm and school on which Sir William believed a stronger Canada could be built.
When he died in 1917, Sir William left his fortune to his personal secretary’s sons, Walter and Howard Stewart, who continued the tradition of philanthropy their benefactor had begun. When David M. Stewart sold the family business in 1973, he used the proceeds to fund the Macdonald-Stewart Foundation.
In the years between Mr. and Mrs. Walter Stewart’s first annual donation to the Macdonald library in 1927 and the $500,000 gift for library renovations in 2006, by Mrs. Liliane M. Stewart, president of the Macdonald-Stewart Foundation, the Stewarts and their foundation have become so much a part of McGill that it is impossible to imagine the University without them.
Both campuses bear the mark of much Stewart generosity. Downtown, the biology building, the engineering building and the McCord Museum building were realized with the family’s help, while on the West Island, Macdonald Campus truly flowered under their care. It is no coincidence that one of their most important gifts to that campus, the Macdonald-Stewart Building, built in 1979, signalled the beginning of a renaissance of McGill’s western campus.
On top of all this, gifts from the family have improved athletics facilities and student common rooms and residences, not to mention scholarships and student societies.
The emphasis on scholarships and student life is completely consistent with Sir William’s world view. He hoped to strengthen the still-young nation of Canada, and saw McGill as a way to do so. A self-made man, he donated not from any particular affinity for academics but rather, in the words of his friend Percy Nobbs, from “his simple and sympathetic affection, strongly felt, for all young men entering the battle of life with serious intent.”