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1920-1945

Science during This Era

University research takes flight

Scientific research at the university level truly began to expand after the First World War, in particular through the efforts of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), created in 1916. For example, in 1930, the NRC funded 62 grants: 33 were earmarked for McGill University, one for a French researcher in Quebec and the rest for elsewhere across Canada.

University research specialized in distinct disciplines and moved forward strongly, particularly in biomedicine. The production of vaccines and research on cures for cancer were the main axes of research in this sector.

Research organizations such as the Cancer Society also emerged during this era (1938).

Innovative researchers

In 1934, Dr. Wilder Penfield (1891-1976), professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University, founded the Montréal Neurological Institute. The Institute quickly acquired an international reputation in the field of nervous system diseases.

In 1938, Dr. Armand Frappier (1904-1991) professor of bacteriology at Université de Montréal, created the Institut de microbiologie et d'hygiène de Montréal. In addition to research and training, this organization provided certain health services and assisted industry in the production of vaccines, sera, etc.

Researchers also participated in the war effort through the development of vaccines, sera and medical products for the Allies. Université de Montréal even housed a secret laboratory to build a nuclear reactor. The reactor was finally built at Chalk River in Ontario in the fall of 1945. Incidentally, Professor Otto Maass of the Chemistry Department at McGill University acted as section director of chemical warfare for the Department of National Defence.

Wilder Penfield

The institutionalization of research in Quebec

For more than 40 years, French intelligentsia had been aware of the need to remedy the absence of French-language scientific institutions in the country. Scientific and technical education was demanded so that French Canadians might carve out a niche in provincial and federal departments, private laboratories and large industry.

In 1920, Université de Montréal separated from Université Laval and created its own Faculty of Science. Initially, this faculty had 50 students, with 40 in medicine. The remaining 10 were involved in six other disciplines: mathematics, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology and mineralogy.

During this period, the Faculty of Science trained professors rather than researchers. However, as a whole, French Canadian universities awarded more PhDs, which served to reduce the gap between the number of French-language and English-language scientists.

Scientists were also grouping together in new scientific societies. The most active in Quebec was undeniably the Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (ACFAS). The purpose of the association, founded in 1923, was to promote the role of the scientist and showcase scientific culture.

In 1921, Université Laval inaugurated the École supérieure de chimie à l'Université Laval and in 1938, the Institut de géologie de Montréal.

Technical careers were also encouraged. The École Polytechnique de Montréal (1873), technical schools in Montréal and Québec (1907), the École d'arpentage (1907) and the École de foresterie (1910) at Université Laval turned out cohorts of graduates ready to join the industrial and technical sectors on the path to progress.

Brother Marie-Victorin, a man of science larger than life

Brother Marie-Victorin, professor of botany at Université de Montréal, was an emblematic figure of the French-language scientific movement in Quebec. With his colleagues, he advocated the benefits of university education and scientific research on the social and economic development of the French Canadian Nation. He also encouraged popular dissemination of science among young people. He did not hesitate to use the media (newspapers, magazines and radio) to reach out to politicians and the population at large. Parallel to this, he pursued a cherished dream: to create a botanical garden in Montréal.

Brother Marie-Victorin

Natural sciences placed within reach of young people

February 27, 1931, marked the official foundation of the Cercles des jeunes naturalistes (CJN), which quickly gained in popularity. Backed by religious communities involved in teaching, the CJN spread scientific knowledge on a broad scale, directly through the educational network in Quebec, newspaper columns (Le Devoir, La Presse, L'Action catholique) and regional newspapers, the creation of affiliated magazines (Le Viateur naturaliste, Le Jeune Naturaliste) and finally, through radio talk shows (Radio-Collège show). The CJN were an important means for the popularization of science during this era.

Emblem of the Cercles des jeunes naturalistes

The emergence of social sciences

After natural sciences, pure science and medicine, social sciences also became a university discipline in their own right. The Department of Social Science Research was established at McGill University in the early 1930s. The emergence of graduate studies in social sciences in French-language universities took place during the years 1940 and 1950, when sociology became an educational and research discipline.

In the beginning, courses at the École des sciences sociales, économiques et politique de l'Université de Montréal offered basic studies on society and Canadian institutions to individuals seeking a civil service career in diplomacy, journalism, politics or social movements. In 1942, the École became the Faculty of Social Sciences. Université Laval created its own faculty in 1943, five years after the establishment of École des sciences sociales de Québec.