Frank Fairchild Wesbrook was the first president of the University of British Columbia. Born in Ontario on July 12, 1868, and raised in Winnipeg, Wesbrook graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1887, and the following year received a master’s degree from the same institution. He received his M.D. from McGill University in 1890, and then spent a year at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. In 1892, he was elected John Walker student in pathology at Cambridge. Wesbrook was appointed Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Minnesota in 1895, and in 1906 he became the first full-time Dean of Medicine there. In 1913, he accepted the post of President of the nascent UBC, to which he would devote the rest of his life.
For most of his tenure at UBC, President Wesbrook kept a diary. Eventually filling 23 pocket notebooks, the diary allowed him to track appointments; make shopping and “to-do” lists; take note of activities and noteworthy events; and help him keep track of the people he met.
Wesbrook made a point of introducing himself to people he met at conferences, at social functions, even on trains and ships as he travelled. He knew that he needed public support if he was to build “the people’s University” which would serve “all the needs of all the people”. The name of every person Wesbrook met was noted in his diary for future reference.
Wesbrook’s administrative workload as the head of a new university was heavy. He was also expected to maintain contacts with politicians, businessmen and others of his social class – this meant attending frequent business meetings, cultural events, and luncheon and dinner engagements. When the First World War began he enrolled in an officers’ training course which took up even more time and energy. He was also in high demand as a public speaker. Wesbrook also travelled a great deal, both in his official capacity as University President and, as someone from outside British Columbia, in an effort to get to know the province. In-between he somehow found time to spend with his wife Anne, daughter Helen, and various friends and relatives.
The Wesbrook diaries serve as primary source material for anyone researching the early history of UBC. They also offer a glimpse into the daily life of one of the most important public figures in early 20th Century British Columbia – a man who held a position which was, as the Minister of Education said in 1913, “the hardest job outside that of the Premier”. To help commemorate both the centennial of UBC’s opening in 1915 and the centenary of the University Library, the University Archives decided to “re-purpose” the diaries as historical social media.
The Twitter feed @Pres_FFWesbrook consists of selected entries from President Wesbrook’s diaries, each dated exactly 100 years previously. For example, the diary entry for September 28, 1914 (left) was entered, 140 characters at a time (the maximum length of a Twitter message), on September 28, 2014. Associated hashtags include #UBCHistory, #UBCCentennial, #UBCArchives, and #UBCLibrary. Non-diary content is posted in square brackets, including explanatory notes, clarifications of names (e.g. “Telegraphed Annie [wife]”), and wherever Wesbrook’s handwriting is unclear (e.g. [?]).
An inspiration for this approach was @FitzMcCleery, a Twitter account derived from the diaries of Fitzgerald McCleery, who was the first European settler in what is now Vancouver. A typical daily entry from @FitzMcCleery would be “Fine. Sold a lot of oats to the mill company for $240” (October 4, 1865/2014). By contrast, Wesbrook’s daily notebook entries typically fill a whole page with neat but tiny writing, listing his activities, appointments, the people he met, and anything else of interest. Even without including routine notes or indecipherable writings, @Pres_FFWesbrook generates at least three to four tweets daily (see screenshot, right).
Utilizing archival sources such as the Wesbrook diaries as social media content is an excellent means of promoting the upcoming centenaries of the University and the Library. In the long run it also provides the University Archives – and, by extension, UBC Library – with an opportunity to showcase its programmes and collections. Promoting our “brand” through social media such as Twitter also raises public awareness of UBC’s rich history, and attracts both scholars and supporters.
President Wesbrook continued to write in his little notebooks until January 1918. By that time his health was deteriorating rapidly. The chronic infections that plagued him for most of his adult life, combined with his heavy workload and the mental and emotional strain of guiding the birth and development of a university in war-time, led to kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, and blindness. He died on October 20, 1918. The University of British Columbia can be considered Frank Wesbrook’s memorial, but his diaries serve as a reminder of the man behind the birth of our institution.