Walter P. Thompson (1949-1959) - memorial tribute

Tribute - J.G. Rempel, April 3, 1970

Walter Palmer Thompson, 1889-1970

WALTER PALMER THOMPSON, C.C., B.A., M.A., Ph.D., LL.D., D.Sc., D.C.L., F.R.S.C., President Emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan, died in Toronto on 30 March 1970 at the age of eighty-one. By his death Canada lost an outstanding scientist, scholar, teacher and administrator.

Walter Thompson was born on a farm in Haldimand county near the village of Decewsville, located a few miles north of Lake Erie. His early education under a succession of incompetent country school teachers was hardly promising for future success, but the southern Ontario countryside early roused in young Thompson an interest in botany and geology.

In 1906 he entered Victoria College, to specialize in biology. Early in his undergraduate career he demonstrated not only outstanding ability in course work, but also an unusual capacity for research. As a sophomore in a course in plant morphology under Professor R.B. Thompson he made a discovery that led to a noteworthy publication (The Origin of Ray Tracheids in the Coniferae). Mainly as a result of this achievement he was awarded, upon graduation, the 1851 Exhibition Science Research Scholarship which took him to Harvard. Here he continued his morphological studies under Professor Jeffrey, the leading researcher in the evolution of higher plants. His subject was the order Gnetales, a group of Gymnosperms having some Angiosperm-like features. Work under Jeffrey was difficult for he had a quarrelsome nature and constantly carried on a feud with his colleagues and graduate students. This drew Thompson more and more to the other members of an illustrious faculty, namely Castle and East, both leaders in what was essentially a new science, genetics. This no doubt had a profound effect on him and may have been responsible for ultimately shifting his interest to genetics, a field in which subsequently he made a great contribution.

As a result of his brilliant record at Harvard he was awarded a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship a year before graduation for the purpose of studying the two remaining genera of Gnetales, one in South West Africa, and the other in Java. While in Java he received a letter from Dr. Walter Murray, President of the recently established University of Saskatchewan, offering him the position of Professor and Head of the Department of Biology. Thompson accepted and took up his duties in Saskatoon in September 1913. In his letter President Murray had tried to prepare him for the somewhat grim situation he would find, in the following words:

"Do not be appalled at the absence of all you have been accustomed to find in other Universities. We have all had to start with nothing.. .You have virgin soil to break."

When the young biologist arrived on the scene, he found Dr. Murray's statement literally true. Virtually the entire faculty and student body were accommodated in one building situated on the open prairie on the east bank of the South Saskatchewan River. He was assigned a small room that served as a laboratory, with one desk and one microscope. These were the teaching and research facilities available to the biologist whose achievements later were to play such an important role in the development of the University and the agricultural economy of the province.


Soon after his arrival in Saskatoon Dr. Thompson embarked on an extensive research program in the relatively new field of genetics, selecting as the subject of his study the wheat plant. This was the most important crop plant on the prairies. Aside from its economic value, wheat also exhibited a large number of inherited variations that made it an attractive subject for genetic studies. Soon a considerable number of species and varieties of wheat were grown in plots and various crosses attempted. At that time he was mainly interested in the inheritance of earliness in ripening, with a view to obtaining varieties in which early ripening would be combined with other agronomically useful characters. Then came the 1916 catastrophic outbreak of rust in Manitoba and Saskatchewan resulting in an estimated loss of wheat valued at 150 million dollars. The subsequent story is well known. The First Rust Conference was convened in Winnipeg in 1917 and was attended by members of the Federal Department of Agriculture and representatives of the Western universities. Discussion centered largely on ecological aspects of the rust parasite in the hope of discovering a vulnerable point in its life chain. His proposal to produce rust resistant varieties by means of genetical methods received scant attention. In the meantime he began his studies of the chromosome situation in the different varieties as a basis for future genetic research. He also trained a number of gifted students to whom later fell much of the burden of the breeding program that was so singularly successful in the conquest of rust.

The quarter century between 1913 and 1938 was Dr. Thompson's most productive period of research resulting in the publication of some seventy scholarly papers on the genetics and cytology of cereal plants. Under his guidance a steady stream of gifted young scientists carried forward these investigations. The school of genetics that he established brought him personally, and the university generally, national and international recognition.

He was also a gifted and renowned teacher. Although he did not possess a vigorous style of speaking, his lectures were always prepared with great care and reflected a thorough mastery of the subject. They were remarkable for clarity and logic. Throughout his teaching career which spanned the years from 1913 to 1946, he offered a course in elementary biology which to large numbers of students became a memorable experience.

At the end of 1938 he undertook new duties, those of the administrator. As Dean of Arts and Science he introduced a thorough revision of the program of study of that college which represented a radical change in the whole concept and practice of liberal education. When in 1949 the University needed a new president, the obvious candidate was W.P. Thompson. As president he enjoyed an extraordinary degree of popularity within the entire university. Probably no other Canadian University President earned for himself more loyalty, admiration and respect among his colleagues than W.P. Thompson. The high esteem that he enjoyed among his faculty is clearly evident from a letter written by a senior professor on leave at the time of his retirement:

"While all of us at Saskatchewan will recognize your right to well-earned years of leisure, I am sure we are also all unanimous in regretting your decision. One of the many pleasures of being at Saskatchewan is the envious comments with which one is greeted when visiting other colleges, because of the quality and integrity of the administration we have... Time and again I have been impressed by the evidence of how scholarship flourishes when the faculty has complete confidence in the president...We hope with all our hearts that your retirement will be as happy and fruitful as your administration..."

The wish expressed came true. A year after retirement the Government of Saskatchewan established an Advisory Planning Commission on Medical Care, and Dr. Thompson was invited to be its chairman. It was an onerous job, made especially difficult by the attitude of the medical members of the committee. But the recommendations of this commission formed the basis not only of the Saskatchewan program, but were almost identical with those made subsequently by the Hall (Federal) Royal Commission on Health Services, accepted by the Federal Government, and made the basis of federal legislation. In his autobiography (Academic's Progress – soon to be published) we find the following statement:

"I am naturally proud of having played a leading part in the establishment of the first universal, comprehensive commission-administered medicare program on this continent."

Dr. Thompson was seventy at the time of his retirement from the presidency of the university, an age when in most men mind and body are in decline. Not so with Dr. Thompson. Upon completion of his arduous duties as commission chairman, he directed his energies along new lines. During the next eight years he wrote four books including The University of Saskatchewan A Personal History, which was published shortly before he died. A manuscript of his autobiography (Academic's Progress) was completed two weeks before he died.

During his life he was elected member or fellow of numerous scientific societies. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1921 at the age of 32, President of its biological section in 1932, and President of the whole Royal Society in 1948. Other recognitions that he greatly prized were the appointment in 1948 to membership in the National Research Council; election as President of the National Conference of Canadian Universities in 1954, Vice-President of the Ninth International Genetics Congress in 1958, and President of the Eighth International Botanical Congress in 1959. The universities of Toronto, Queen's, McMaster, Windsor, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia awarded him honorary degrees. The Royal Society of Canada presented him with the Flavelle Medal in 1950, and he was in the first group of Canadians to be appointed Companion of the Order of Canada.

When he retired he and Mrs. Thompson continued to live in Saskatoon. Mrs. Thompson died in 1965. In September 1969 he moved to Toronto where he spent his last year. He is survived by his son, Dr. James S. Thompson, Head of the Department of Anatomy, University of Toronto, and a daughter, Mrs. Mary Smith of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Dr. Thompson had many qualities that go with greatness. As a teacher, researcher, and public servant he was eminently successful. In his dealings with his fellow-men, be he teacher, student or commoner, he displayed at all times friendliness, understanding, and tact. But if there was one quality that above else characterized him, it was his complete integrity. On the campus of the University of Saskatchewan is a memorial to him in stone, in the form of the stately W.P. Thompson Biology Building. A colorful mosaic displaying the details of chromosomal behaviour at cell division is most fitting. A greater memorial is in the hearts and minds of those who were fortunate to know him.

[W.P. Thompson fonds, file IX.g, Presidential office, Memorial to W.P. Thompson]