William Johnston

William Johnston

JULY 24, 1848 - JANUARY 7, 1885

William Johnston was a hugely significant figure in the history of agricultural education in Canada. He was the unofficial founder and first principal of the Ontario Agricultural College, the predecessor of the University of Guelph.

Johnston was born in Lockerbie, Scotland on July 24, 1848, the son of David Johnston. His family emigrated to Canada when he was but three years old, settling in Cobourg, Canada West. His passion and dedication for teaching began very early in his life and is demonstrated by the fact that he taught school in Northumberland County at only 15 years of age. Johnston attended a total of four colleges in his extensive education- Victoria College in 1862, Knox College in 1869, the Edinborough University in 1870 (where he studied mental and moral philosophy), and finally the University of Toronto in 1872, from which he graduated in 1874 with a gold medal for metaphysics.

It was then that he began his long career in agricultural education, which would last the majority of his short life. Johnston was committed to bringing agricultural education to the masses of students and young adults of Ontario. The year he graduated from the University of Toronto he was appointed rector of the Ontario School of Agriculture in Guelph (the predecessor of the O.A.C.) for its first year in operation. In 1876 he was appointed as the third principal of the school at only the young age of 26. Although he lacked experience in farming, his dedication and passion made up for it, and after a few years as principal he successfully ended the schools bad publicity (which it had drawn under the school’s previous two principals), restored the reputation of the school, and re-established connections with local farmers.

During his tenure, Johnston completely reorganized the school. Critical of American and European agricultural colleges, which he felt did not place enough of an emphasis on farming itself, Johnston set about bringing his own unique philosophy, which emphasized both the scientific and practical aspects of farming, to fruition. He established shorter diploma courses for boys and made manual labour a requirement of all students. But ultimately one of his greatest contributions to the development of the school was the creation of a three-year degree program in affiliation with the University of Toronto in 1887. Johnston demonstrated his vision when he recommended that the O.A.C be affiliated with the University of Toronto, as this was essential in the growth and development of the College. Furthermore, It was during his tenure that results from scientific experiments first began being shared for the benefit of local farmers to be converted into practical applications.

In addition to his administrative work, Johnston took the time to also teach lectures in English, botany, and zoology. Furthermore, he also took an active role in lobbying for the creation of regional agricultural middle schools and agricultural courses in elementary schools, demonstrating his desire that agricultural education be accessible to all ranges of young people.

Ultimately, Johnston turned the O.A.C. from a controversy-ridden failure into a thriving and popular school that was essential to the development and cultivation of young Ontario farmers. Through establishing the school’s unique philosophy, something it would retain to this day, and revolutionizing its administration and programs, he has more than earned his reputation as the architect of the O.A.C. Johnston’s legacy in Guelph was enshrined when the now iconic Johnston Hall residence building of the O.A.C. was dedicated to him in 1932. In 1980 he was inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of fame.

Celebrating 150 Years of Canadian Agriculture