Thomas McCulloch after Pictou Academy

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Dr. Jock Murray and Janet Murray

For The Advocate

By 1836, the Rev. Thomas McCulloch, principal of Pictou Academy, was becoming discouraged. He was resisted in his efforts to get adequate funding for the Academy, and have it recognized as an institution of higher learning. He was mourning the deaths of a daughter and son in the previous year. He had spent years fending off political and religious enemies of the Academy. He appealed to the Governor but was told the government was rethinking the educational institutions in the provinces, and perhaps the Academy could consider becoming a grammar school rather than one for higher education. He had to respond to efforts of those who supported other religious schools who attempted to erode the Academy support that came from Scotland. Even the Synod of the Presbyterian Church was making things difficult for him. Two of his long-standing teachers had died. His amazing collection was to be the basis for a museum of natural history, but the government would not support it, so it was packed and shipped to England where it was sold. He had little income and was concerned that even the public had cooled about the future of the Academy and he felt it was not going to be able to continue. He wrote to friends that the future of the Academy looked dim and perhaps he should go to another chapter in his life.

He was approached by representatives of the dormant Dalhousie College who wanted him to finally get the college opened for students. On 25 September 1838 he wrote to the Board of Trustees of Pictou Academy to say he was resigning to take a position with Dalhousie College. His salary would be 225 pounds.

There was great hope in Halifax for the arrival of McCulloch as the first principal of Dalhousie. He had a respected reputation as an educator and leader, and on a previous occasion when he was asked to speak at the Mechanics Institute in Halifax, the hall was crowded, and 50 people had to be turned away.

Dalhousie College had been the idea of Lord Dalhousie, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. He wanted an institution for Nova Scotia in the image of the universities in Scotland, non-sectarian, and open to all. On 6 February 1818 he received permission from the Prince Regent in London to use the Castine Funds from the War of 1815 to establish a college and to expand the Garrison library. The Castine Funds were custom duties collected at the Port of Castine in Maine, captured by an expeditionary force from Halifax under Lieutenant-General Sir John Sherbrooke and Rear Admiral Edward Griffith. Dalhousie takes the date of the Royal permission as the date of its founding. A building was completed on the Grand Parade in Halifax in 1821, but no teaching began. The problem was a board of trustees who mostly had little interest in seeing the institution succeed, one being the Anglican Archbishop who wanted King’s College to be the leading institution. A committee of the trustees showed little interest in recruiting professors, and none were hired. Also, King’s was supported by the Anglicans and Pictou Academy by the Presbyterians, but Dalhousie, as a non-sectarian institution, did not have a religious support group.

During the 1920s the college scene in Nova Scotia was confusing. King’s College had a small squabbling staff, few students, a dilapidated building but had a charter. Pictou Academy had an excellent leader, good teachers, students, a good building but no charter. Dalhousie had a building, no staff, no students and no charter.

For its first 20 years no student entered the portals of Dalhousie College. The building rented space to a pastry shop, a painting school and a grammar school. The arrival of McCulloch in 1838 was the opportunity to bring Lord Dalhousie’s dream to fruition. Finally, the doors of Dalhousie College were open for students.

A controversy in the arrangement for hiring McCulloch was the plan to have the government subsidy of 200-pounds for Pictou Academy moved to Dalhousie College.

On 20 November 1838 McCulloch started the academic year with an opening ceremony for the 12 students. He had the major teaching load, training students for the ministry and teaching logic, rhetoric, political economy and moral philosophy. Another staff member taught Latin and Greek and the third, mathematics and natural history. Initially there were two academic sessions, but the board changed it to one seven-month term, which gave McCulloch five months during the summer period to pursue his other interests. He went on excursions to add to his ornithology collection (which remains at Dalhousie today in the Thomas McCulloch Museum) and was able to return for a visit to Glasgow, Scotland.

The College was slowly growing and in 1841 was given university powers by an act of parliament. All was not smooth. Edmund Crawly, a Baptist, was rejected as a professor at Dalhousie, and then campaigned for a competing Queen’s College in Wolfville. The plan was successful but renamed Acadia College, as the Anglican Queen Victoria was not amused about being connected with a Baptist institution.

At the opening ceremony for the academic year in September 1843, McCulloch looked tired and weak. He was increasingly weak over the next five days and was seen many times by his physician, Dr. William Grigor, founder of the Nova Scotia Medical Society. Grigor initially thought his patient, who was so weak he could hardly rise from his bed and slept a lot, might have typhus. Five days after the opening ceremony, on 9 September 1843, he died with his son Thomas holding his hand. He was buried in “the old cemetery ground”, Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Pictou.

Dalhousie College floundered after McCulloch, closing in 1845. The trustees thought the funds should be allowed to accumulate so it would reopen stronger. The space was rented out as a post office, and reopened in 1848, but as a grammar school with his son Thomas McCulloch Jr. as headmaster. He was not the leader his father was, and after difficult years it closed its doors again. It briefly reopened as a high school, but then closed until it was opened by the pressure of another Pictou native, Rev. George Munro Grant, who brought Dr. Charles Tupper and Joseph Howe into a campaign to re-establish Dalhousie College in 1863. Acadia College faculty attempted to have the Dalhousie Act revoked but were unsuccessful, and Dalhousie was on track to become the outstanding institution envisioned by Lord Dalhousie and its first principal, Thomas McCulloch.

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.