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February 29: Manitoba Professor Speaks at UND

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On this date in 1912, the University of North Dakota's student newspaper, The Student, reported on a lecture given the previous Saturday by Dr. Robert Charles Wallace, a geology professor at the University of Manitoba. Although Dr. Wallace was a renowned expert on mineralogy, his topic was not about geology. The title was “Ideals of University Co-operation.” This speech would prefigure his future career in university administration. Indeed, he would become one of the most eminent university administrators in Canadian history.

Yet, the fame of Robert Charles Wallace, both for good and for ill, was yet to come at the time of his appearance in Grand Forks. The Student reported that he lamented the contemporary trend of parochialism in universities. In contrast, he praised the custom of medieval students to travel from school to school. He talked about how “the German student goes from one university to another” and is unlikely to finish at the same school they started at.

Dr. Wallace lived up to that wandering lifestyle. He earned his degrees from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Göttingen. He would later serve as president of the University of Alberta from 1928 to 1936, vice chancellor of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, from 1936 to 1951 and the Arctic Institute from 1951 until his death in 1955.

According to The Student, he finished by saying, “Universities stand in co-operation through their professors. They should have a common aim: the inner call of a university or the search for truth for its own sake.”

Dr. Wallace had an illustrious career, highly regarded, according to most conventional metrics of academic success.

He did, however, have his critics.

Like so many other university professors of his era, Wallace succumbed to the temptations of eugenics. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Alberta's Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928. In his notorious speech to the Canadian Medical Association in 1934, he lamented that “virtually nothing” had been done to raise the quality of “human stock,” unlike “the quality of the stock in domesticated animals.”

Today, the contradiction is more apparent between his eugenic activism and what he considered the inner call of a university – the search for truth for its own sake.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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