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d. 20 April 1865 in York Township, Canada West


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JOHNSTON, WILLIAM, educator and lawyer; b. 24 July 1848 in Lockerbie, Scotland, son of David Johnston; d. unmarried 7 Jan. 1885 in Guelph, Ont.

William Johnston’s family immigrated to Canada in 1851 and settled in Cobourg, Canada West, where his father taught in a public school. William enrolled in Victoria College, Cobourg, at the age of 14, and after a year he left to teach school in Northumberland County. In 1869 he entered Knox College, Toronto, but because of ill health had to drop out and seek medical advice in Edinburgh. In 1872 he returned to the University of Toronto and graduated in 1874 with the gold medal for metaphysics.

In August 1874, shortly after his graduation, Johnston became rector and then acting principal of the School of Agriculture and Experimental Farm at Guelph which had accepted its first students in May; he became principal in 1876. Under the short tenures of the first two principals, Henry McCandless and Charles Roberts, the school had quickly attracted criticism from politicians and suspicion from farmers. During the five years that Johnston headed the school he managed to end the bad publicity and to win support from Ontario farmers. Between 1874 and 1879 the school’s enrolment grew from 28 to 89.

In his reorganization of the school, Johnston, for administrative purposes, separated the farm and the school. William Brown, the professor of agriculture, became the first farm manager while Johnston, as principal, controlled the school. The conflict resulting from this “double headship” eventually led to Johnston’s resignation in 1879 and continued to cause endless friction for ten years after his departure.

Within the school itself Principal Johnston established an academic programme which emphasized both the scientific and the practical aspects of farming. The requirement of manual labour for all students remained a characteristic of campus life until 1920. Johnston was interested in that “miscellaneous medley of youths, whose natural place is the plough, the bench, the forge, or the mine.” He was opposed to the example set by the American land grant colleges whereby liberal arts and engineering developed side by side with the colleges of agriculture. Likewise he refused to accept the pattern of European agricultural schools, which he said trained “peasants,” made “stewards and managers of farms,” and hardly ever turned out “the peasant proprietor holding his own plough” or the manager “controlling his own business.”

More than anyone else Johnston must be regarded as the founder of the Ontario Agricultural College and Experimental Farm, as the school became known in 1885. He gave it a philosophy of education, both theoretical and practical, which may still be discerned, and convinced at least some farmers in Ontario that the school could be important to the success of agriculture in the province. He hired competent men, such as James Hoyes Panton, whose lectures in chemistry and geology ensured that the science as well as the practice of agriculture would flourish at Guelph. Also he was the first to recommend that the School of Agriculture and Experimental Farm should be removed from the control of the provincial government.

Principal Johnston resigned on 30 Sept. 1879 to enter the law office of Blake, Kerr and Boyd in Toronto, and in February 1882 he was called to the bar of Upper Canada. He was secretary of the Central Reform Association during the federal election of 1882 and the provincial election of 1883. Unfortunately Johnston’s second career as a lawyer interested in reform politics was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 36. “His ability and judgment” were praised in an obituary notice, which also singled him out “as one of the rising young men of the Liberal Party.” It is, however, as an educator and as the architect of the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph that William Johnston deserves historical note.

Alexander M. Ross

Ont., Agricultural Commission, Report of the commissioners . . . (Toronto, 1881), app.O: 17–47; app.P: 14–80; Legislature, Sessional papers, 1874 (2nd session), I, no. l: xi–xiii, app.F. Ontario School of Agriculture and Experimental Farm, Annual report (Toronto), 1874–79. A. M. Ross, The college on the hill: a history of the Ontario Agricultural College, 1874–1974 (Vancouver, 1974).

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Cite This Article

Alexander M. Ross, “JOHNSTON, WILLIAM (1848-85),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_william_1848_85_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_william_1848_85_11E.html
Author of Article:   Alexander M. Ross
Title of Article:   JOHNSTON, WILLIAM (1848-85)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   April 20, 2024