By Dr. Jock Murray and Janet Murray
For The Advocate
Pictou was a vibrant and exciting town in 1834. The town had 1,600 Scots and 300 buildings, second in size to Halifax in the province, and with the leading educational institution. If you walked down Water Street you would see the bustling businesses and a harbour dotted with tall ships. A letter writer of the time said the town resembled Edinburgh, with many Scotsmen in tartans and Pictou Academy students in their flowing red gowns. It was best to avoid the streets during election time because mobs clashed, and serious brawls were common. Rev. Norman MacLeod, who took his flock out of Pictou after two years, said he didn’t know any town in the land that compared with Pictou for its “shameless and daring wickedness.” They not only took politics, religion, commerce and drinking seriously, but even more, education was a motivating force. They had a thirst for both whisky and knowledge.
Historian D. C. Harvey said that this was an era of “intellectual awakening” in Nova Scotia, but archivist Allan Dunlop added, in Pictou it was not an awakening, as it was already happening, due to the influence of Thomas McCulloch and the graduates of Pictou Academy. McCulloch initiated a library at the Academy, a Subscription Library for the community and a private natural history museum.
The zest for learning was certainly the main reason why 23 young men met at Pictou Academy on December 8, 1834, “for the formation in the Town of Pictou of an institution designed for the material improvements of its members in the sciences and general literature and for the diffusion in the community of a taste for useful information.” The wording in the minutes makes clear their serious intent. This was the beginning of the Pictou Literary and Scientific Society.
The founders were doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen, all sharing a desire to advance their personal intellectual growth and keep up with advances in the world.
The Society met every second Wednesday of the month from November to May. Membership for the original members was two pounds and five shillings, but new members paid seven pounds and six shillings. Anyone arriving late, after the president has taken the chair, was fined a shilling. This rule was later cancelled. The general public were invited to attend the first meeting of each year. Each member could invite one lady to attend meetings.
To keep decorum, politics and religion could not be discussed, and any unruly member would be removed. Keeping politics out of the Society was not easy when raucous debates and clashes were the preoccupation of Pictonians. Even the most benign sounding lecture could suddenly divert to political tirades during the discussion period.
The quality and diversity of lectures was impressive. Since all the professions and businesses were represented in the membership there were talks on legal and medical topics, agriculture, literature and science. Thomas McCulloch spoke on natural sciences, William Dawson gave lectures on minerology, Dr. William Anderson on galvanism, John Styles on the building of bridges, and John McKinlay on feudal systems, as examples of the variety of topics. There were also many invited visiting speakers. When discoveries were being published and books printed, soon they would be discussed at the Society
Particularly popular were demonstrations of scientific principles and discoveries. Pharmacist J. D. B. Fraser gave a session on “exhilarating gas”, (nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”) then led the group to the Mason Hall where he administered it to members who then seemed to “exhibit various specimens of dancing and pugilistic philosophy.”
They saw demonstrations of hydrodynamics and of galvanic stimulation. An electromagnet was used to suspect 224 pounds in the lecture hall. Following a lecture on pyrotechnics the audience was brought outside in the dark to see a fireworks display. A lecture on the nature of gases was followed by a demonstration that hydrogen was lighter than air. A good-sized turkey was inflated with hydrogen and allowed to float around the room until the bird slowly deflated and fell to the floor. In another demonstration on the properties of oxygen something dramatic must have happened as a few days later a special meeting was held to discuss reimbursing Fraser for the damage to his apparatus during the demonstration. He was given 18 shillings.
Fraser was not reluctant to bring dangerous displays that required great care. European publications on the explosive guncotton were appearing in 1846 and Fraser was demonstrating its features, even though a safe form was not discovered for another 15 years. His fame in the annals of medicine are for his early use of chloroform, and, of course, he was demonstrating it at the Society meetings. In 1850 he demonstrated an electric light burning charcoal, 10 years before an electric light using a charcoal element was perfected.
The Society later decided it was important to establish a library and a museum. Each member could borrow one book, but overdue fines were a penny a day. Those who were working on a lecture could borrow any number. Politics and religion were not excluded from the collection of books. An offensive book would be sold, and Dunlop pointed out, the Scots were not about to burn a book if a dollar could be turned. There was a committee of seven members, and they agreed to rent space to keep the book collection in the Subscription Library established by Thomas McCulloch. Later the financial costs of new books and rent became an issue while membership was declining, and they moved the books to the Pictou Academy Library where they didn’t pay rent.
The Society was active for two decades, but by 1852 the lectures were cancelled and although efforts were made over the next 10 years to revive the Society or merge with another, it was clear that people were active in other groups and societies, such as a new debating club, which didn’t avoid politics or religion, and attracted younger people.
The Society may have lasted only a few decades, but it was a reflection of the respect the people of Pictou had for learning in all branches of knowledge.
Allan Dunlop. The Pictou Literary and Scientific Society. NS Quarterly 1973;3(2):99-116
Pictou Literary and Scientific Society Minutes. Dalhousie Archives. MS-2-62, SF Box 19, folders 1-3
Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.