The voters have spoken: Greatest McGillians are Chang, Cohen and Rutherford

Published: 19 September 2011

After nearly 60,000 votes and months of sometimes furious debate, the results are in for the Greatest McGillians contest. In the end, voters gave the nod to a trio of illustrious McGillians whose achievements represent three different pillars of the university’s excellence: Thomas Chang, BSc’57, MDCM’61, PhD’65, the inventor of the artificial blood cell, poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, BA’55, and Nobel-prize winning physicist Ernest Rutherford, who carried out seminal work at McGill in the early 1900s.

Chang, who at 74 is still director of McGill's Artificial Cells and Organs Research Centre, reacted to the news by focusing attention on his work: “What the voters really did was vote for my Centre’s past and present members, who work so hard on this, and also for all the groups around the world that work so hard on this. Hopefully, their votes will encourage more support and more effort in this area, to make further progress for the treatment of patients.”

Chang has been active at McGill for more than 50 years, first as a student and subsequently as a researcher and teacher. (Click here to see a longer interview with Chang)

Through his publicist, Leonard Cohen commented that he was “deeply honoured” at having placed so high.

McGill’s Dean of Science, Martin Grant, who had championed Rutherford’s candidacy, said: “What Ernest Rutherford speaks to, about McGill as institution, is our respect for, and recognition of, excellence. Remember, he was the world’s first nuclear physicist.”

The contest, developed by the McGill Alumni Association as part of the celebration of the University’s 190th anniversary, called on members of the McGill community to first nominate candidates for the title, then vote on a final field of 20. Other nominees who collected substantial numbers of votes included William Osler, Wilder Penfield, Brenda Milner, John Humphrey, and, of course, the University’s founder, James McGill.

“What I think is wonderful is that the voters, in their wisdom, placed in the top three a cross-section of individuals who span a variety of disciplines and eras at McGill,” said Honora Shaughnessy, MLS’73, Executive Director of the McGill Alumni Association. “Rutherford is a physicist whose most notable work was done in the early 20th century; Chang, a chemist who did groundbreaking work in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Cohen, a musical icon who has achieved some of his greatest glory in the early 21st century.”

The contest aimed to educate as well as to spark discussion, and Shaughnessy feels that these goals were accomplished. “There are now thousands in the McGill community who are more aware of the achievements of someone like a Thomas Chang, or a Bernard Belleau, who co-developed the highly effective anti-AIDS drug 3TC. And a lot of people might not have known of Wilfrid Laurier’s McGill connection, that Canada’s first francophone prime minister was also a McGill Law graduate”.

The winners of the contest will be celebrated at the Closing Brunch for McGill Homecoming 2011, on October 16.  Also in October, all 20 finalists, and some 30 other Great McGillians, will be enshrined in a new web-based, historical timeline highlighting McGill’s history through its greatest achievers. Contest organizers plan to “induct” a new set of McGillians into the timeline each year.

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About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Que., in 1821, McGill is Canada’s leadingpost-secondary institution. It has two campuses, 11 faculties, 11 professional schools, 300 programs of study and more than 36,000 students, including 8,300 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, with more than 7,200 international students making up 20 per cent of the student body. Almost half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including more than 6,200 francophones.


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