A throne fit for a king of Queen’s

History department commemorates 100th anniversary of Douglas Chair with ceremony

The famed Douglas Chair underwent restoration and will be on display in Douglas Library.
The famed Douglas Chair underwent restoration and will be on display in Douglas Library.

Last Wednesday, the history department made some history of its own.

A century ago, Canadian studies were a relatively minor field of study. James Douglas, a mining engineer and Queen’s alumnus, established the first ever chair of Canadian and Colonial History in 1910.

By establishing a chair Queen’s sent the message that Canadians have an identity of their own, distinct from that of the British. For the first time, it was made clear that Canadian history is a discipline in its own right.

In celebration of the centennial of the chair, 80 people including Principal Daniel Woolf, a historian himself, academics, relations of past chairs and the present chair, Donald Akenson crowded into the fourth floor reading room in Douglas Library.

On his way up to the reading room, Akenson got stuck in an elevator for nearly 30 minutes but didn’t let it stop him from addressing the crowd in a lecture about “Arithmetic, Purpose, and Liberal Arts Education.”

David Parker is the chair of the history department and one of the organizers of the event. He said historians have a tendency to look far afield for their studies but shouldn’t forget a past that lies closer to home.

“We thought it was important for the history department to look at its own history, which we often forget,” he said.

When the Douglas Chair was created in 1910, Douglas offered $50,000 for its endowment. This model provided a lucrative salary for chairs, however, after the death of Douglas in 1918, the trustees used the money endowed in the chair and it was never returned to the department.

“Douglas supported Queen’s not only financially but also with his time, intellect and administrative capabilities,” he said, adding that Douglas played a large part in shaping Queen’s history.

During a financial crisis the University was facing in the early 1900s, Douglas helped the university raise $400,000 and also gave $50,000. His donation was made in exchange for Queen’s cutting its Presbyterian ties and endowing the money in an academic chair position.

The chair currently holds no money and the position now is honorary and is used to recognize someone who has done work in the field.

Parker said opinions are divided on how the chair came into existence.

In one version James Douglas, as a joke, wanted to accompany the academic chair position with a physical chair. A second said that James Douglas had written the endowment of an academic chair into his will, but in the grief and confusion of his passing, his widow had misunderstood and sent an armchair instead, Parker said.

“Luckily, as all historians learn, oral histories are often flat wrong. Douglas was very much alive when the chair was donated, firmly disproving the confused widow theory,” he told the audience.

Kathleen Birchall, wife of former chair holder Roger Graham, was at Wednesday’s event.

“It is one of the most heartwarming experiences of my life,” she said, adding that Graham came to Queen’s as a holder of the Douglas Chair in 1968.

“He had been asked to take one of the most prestigious positions any Canadian historian can ever aspire to,” she said. “When a Canadian historian is given the honour of coming to Queen’s and holding the Douglas Chair, there’s no place to go. He has arrived. This is the top honour for a Canadian historian.”

When Birchall’s husband was awarded the position, it was no small affair as there was a ceremony that was held in his honour.

Part of the ceremony also required the use of an actual chair which was commissioned by Douglas when he endowed the departmental chair.

Donald Akenson, the current holder of the chair said he had received a letter informing him that he was awarded the position. He told the audience that the physical chair can help shed a bit of light on what the discipline was like in 1910.

“It was carved by a woman in India and one arm shows a white woman as a sign of civilization and the other side shows an Indian, a native if you may, who of course symbolizes what it means to be civilized. It’s quite politically incorrect now. It’s the way they thought in those days,” he said.

Krysia Spirydowicz, professor of artifact conservation, said the chair was in poor condition when they began restoration last year.

Spirydowicz supervised Stephane Doyon who conserved the chair.

“It was not in good shape, the seat was sagging, the finish was damaged, [a] few parts were missing as well,” she said, adding that Doyon had prior woodworking experience.

“We were approached in 2008 but we really didn’t start until last year. It took him three months, although he didn’t work on it continuously during that time,” she said.

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