Signs of the times: 65 years of the Beatty Lecture

While students eagerly await Jane Goodall’s upcoming lecture on Sept. 26, they may be unaware of the history behind the star-studded Beatty Lecture series, named in honour of Sir Edward Beatty. Returning 40 years after her first lecture in 1979, Goodall will be the first repeat speaker in Beatty Lecture history. On the 65th anniversary of the annual event, Goodall’s talk will add to over half a century of seminal lectures by speakers that exemplify their eras. 

The exhibition “With the World to Choose From: Celebrating 65 Years of the Beatty Lecture” will be on display in the fourth-floor lobby of the McLennan Library building until Oct. 31. The vernissage on Sept. 12 launched both the main exhibit and a smaller collection focused on the life and home of former McGill Chancellor and president of the CPR Sir Edward Beatty.  

Curators Frédéric Giuliano and Robin Koning highlighted the Beatty Lecture’s mission to inspire students with 11 quotes from past speakers on the walls surrounding the exhibit. The exhibit draws a timeline from the establishment of the Beatty Lecture fund to promotional material and press from past lectures. In 1952, Dr. Henry A. Beatty donated $100,000 gift to McGill in memory of his brother, Sir Edward Beatty, establishing the Beatty Lecture fund. 

Robin Koning, Digital Marketing & Outreach Associate for the Office of the Vice Principal Research and Innovation, which organizes the Beatty Lecture, spoke on its namesake’s legacy. 

“Back in the day, the Canadian Pacific Railway was one of the largest corporations on the planet, so [Beatty] had a really big job really young,” Koning said. “He dedicated his life to being McGill’s chancellor and the CPR, and he was knighted in 1935 by King George V.”

The exhibit follows the process to select the first speaker before landing on India’s first post-colonial Vice President and President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Original ideas included author T. S. Eliot and pop culture theory pioneer Russel Nye. Frédéric Giuliano, who also works as an archivist at McGill University Archives, cited a letter from then Dean Thompson to the principal.

“This is where the title of the exhibit came from: ‘With the world to choose from, it becomes difficult to select for the Beatty lectureship,’” Giuliano said. 

Selecting the Beatty lecturer has grown into more than just a conversation between senior administrations. Alongside their selection committee, the Beatty Lecture website encourages suggestions from students and faculty alike, reifying the lecture’s multidisciplinary and essentially collective nature. 

“[The Lecture] is truly a campus-wide event,” Koning said. “It [tends to appeal] to a wide variety of people. It’s an event for McGill and for Montreal as well. It does stand unique, [being] so broad and [bringing] in such well known, influential names that are really part of the zeitgeist.” 

With an extensive pool of preeminent scholars to choose from, the Beatty Lecture has historically highlighted people at the forefront of their fields, creating an archive of the last century’s freshest ideas and intellectual conundrums. 

“In the ‘90s, people talked about environmental issues because [these issues] really entered into our popular dialogue,” Koning said. “You have people in the ‘70s [asking] what technology is going to do to us, wondering if we were going to become slaves to [it] since it was the beginning of tech and the first wave of computers. It’s like a timeline of some of the major events that have happened since the ‘50s.”

To access this remarkable timeline, Koning encourages students to explore past lectures on the digital archive on the website.

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