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FORREST, JOHN, Presbyterian minister and educator; b. 25 Nov. 1842 in New Glasgow, N.S., son of Alexander Forrest and Barbara Ross McKenzie; brother of Isabella Forrest*; m. 20 Dec. 1871 Annie Prescott Duff in Lunenburg, N.S., and they had two sons and one daughter; d. 23 June 1920 in Halifax.

John Forrest was educated at the Free Church College in Halifax and was ordained in 1866, immediately becoming minister of St John’s Church there. At St John’s he developed a strong and loyal congregation. Such was his reputation that in 1878 he was invited to be the representative of the Presbyterian Church on the Dalhousie University board of governors. His sister Catherine’s husband was George Munro*, another Pictou County man and a New York publisher. Munro came to Halifax on a long visit in 1879 and learned from Forrest of Dalhousie’s poor overall state, including its desperate need for a professor of physics and its inability to pay for one. Munro said, “If you will find the man, I will find the money.” It was the beginning of a series of five handsomely endowed professorships and the positive rejuvenation of Dalhousie’s prospects. In 1881 Forrest was prevailed upon to accept the chair of history and political economy offered by his brother-in-law. It was given on condition he step down from his pastorate at St John’s. In 1885, on the retirement of James Ross*, John Forrest became Dalhousie’s third president.

He had a mind open to all denominations. When the Anglican King’s College at Windsor asked what precondition he might have if it were to offer to join Dalhousie, Forrest replied that he had none. Dalhousie and King’s would simply pool their resources, boards, staff, students, and endowments. He never swerved from this policy. His belief, and Dalhousie’s, was that no good university could go it alone, given the entire absence of provincial government support after 1881. He had also the sense to realize that Dalhousie could not stay where it was on the Grand Parade, a site in the middle of downtown Halifax that the city greatly coveted. With the board he urged the move to what were then the western suburbs. A large brick building was erected in 1887, thanks to a gift from Sir William Young*, and thither the university moved that autumn. (The building was named the Forrest Building in 1919.)

Forrest was a big man, with big visions. “Lord John” the students called him, and it was not inappropriate. His policy was to nurture expansion. With Munro’s money he started the law school in 1883 [see Robert Sedgewick*]. By affiliation he added the Halifax Medical College in 1887 [see Edward Farrell*] and the Maritime Dental College in 1908. He began mining engineering in 1902 and converted it to a faculty of engineering in 1905. But engineering was expensive, and in 1906 the provincial universities and Mount Allison in New Brunswick agreed to ask the Nova Scotia government to take over engineering education. The creation of a government-funded engineering college, Nova Scotia Technical College, took place in 1907. He was president when Dalhousie’s board of governors purchased the 43-acre Studley estate in 1910 from the heirs of Robert Murray* (his widow, Elizabeth Carey, and their eldest son), though there is evidence that the initiative here came also from a board recently energized by the appointment of Halifax businessman George Stewart Campbell as chairman. Forrest had an uncanny ability to pick talent, men who would make a remarkable contribution to Dalhousie learning, life, and lore: James Gordon MacGregor, Munro professor of physics from 1879 to 1901; Richard Chapman Weldon*, dean of law and Munro professor from 1883 to 1914; and Archibald McKellar MacMechan*, Munro professor of English from 1889 to 1933, to name only three.

The expansion that Forrest had created outran his own casual business methods. He was bursar, registrar, president, and dean of students all in one. He collected the fees personally from students; it used to be said that fees from arts students went in one pocket, law in another, medicine in a third. A rumour, perhaps accurate because it came from a secretarial source, was that Dalhousie business correspondence was kept on the starched cuffs of President Forrest’s shirts. Dalhousie did not own a typewriter until 1907, and it was not that much used even then. When Arthur Stanley Mackenzie*, Forrest’s successor, arrived in 1911 he found very few records other than the formal minutes of the board of governors and the senate.

Forrest continued to live in Halifax and attend ceremonies as professor emeritus while the new buildings went up on the Studley campus. He preached at the funeral of Ebenezer Mackay, a much-loved professor of chemistry, in January 1920: “And what is the message to you young men that comes from him now in that coffin? It is a clear and unmistakeable one ‘Be ye also ready; be faithful in whatever is entrusted to you like he was, and if need be, like he was, faithful unto death.’” It was almost Forrest’s own epitaph. He died a few months later at the age of 77.

P. B. Waite

[There are no Forrest papers as such, only isolated letters in the correspondence of Dalhousie’s board of governors in Dalhousie Univ. Arch. (Halifax), MS 1-1, B. There are also one or two interesting letters in the A. McK. MacMechan papers in the Dalhousie archives, MS 2-82, which show his skill as a president in pursuit of good professors.  p.b.w.]

Private arch., P. B. Waite (Halifax), Interview with Miss Lola Henry, Halifax, 28 April 1990. Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax), 24 March 1920. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). A. J. Crockett, George Munro, “The Publisher” (Halifax, 1957), originally issued as four articles in the Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 35 (1955–56) and 36 (1956–57). A. E. Marble, Nova Scotians at home and abroad, including brief biographical sketches of over six hundred native born Nova Scotians (Windsor, N.S., 1977). Wallace, Macmillan dict.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

P. B. Waite, “FORREST, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forrest_john_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forrest_john_14E.html
Author of Article: P. B. Waite
Title of Article: FORREST, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: December 23, 2014