While transcribing Frank Fairchild Wesbrook’s diary entry for 12 October 1916 onto Twitter (@Pres_FFWesbrook), UBC Archives staff were reminded of an important anniversary:
8:15 Vancouver Institute *
Hill Tout in chair.
Lecture Archibald – “Atom”
With this rather terse note, starred and underlined in red pencil, UBC’s first president marked the inaugural lecture presented by the Vancouver Institute.
The Institute had been officially established on 25 February of that year. Its initial aim was to coordinate and bring under one organization the various public lecture series which until then had delivered independently by different groups, often on conflicting schedules. Many of these, including the Art, Historical and Scientific Association, the Academy of Science, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council, and the Women’s University Club, quickly affiliated themselves with the Institute. They represented a wide range of interests within the intellectual and professional community of Vancouver and British Columbia.
The Institute also boasted substantial links to the University. Wesbrook had been instrumental in its initial organization, and was serving as its first President. Several UBC faculty members had also been involved with the Institute from its very beginnings, and more than half of the lectures during its first year were scheduled to be delivered by UBC staff. Finally, lectures were being presented in the newly-completed Assembly Hall at UBC’s Fairview campus at the corner of Tenth Avenue and Willow Streets – after the University moved to its Point Grey campus, the Institute would follow it there. For that reason the Vancouver Institute would come to be seen as a liaison between “town and gown” – a link between the University and the wider community.
In Wesbrook’s diary entry, “Hill Tout” refered to Charles Hill-Tout, noted educator and amateur anthropologist, who was the Honorary President of the Institute. That first lecture, sponsored by the Academy of Science, was presented by E.H. Archibald, Assistant Professor in the UBC Department of Chemistry – the first in a long line of Institute speakers drawn from the University. The title of his lecture was “The Atom of the Chemist”.
No full transcript of Archibald’s talk survives, but Vancouver newspaper clippings preserved in the Archives’ scrapbook collection at least provide something more than Wesbrook’s understated “Fine”. The next day the Daily News-Advertiser summarized the collective opinion of Charles Hill-Tout and the audience, “that such a scientific lecture as Prof. Archibald had given enlarged immensely the field of knowledge and quickened the imagination…”.
By comparing and contrasting the modern views of the universe based upon scientific facts, with the old theories of philosophy it was shown how slow was the development of knowledge in the past and how rapid it would be when we had the key to nature’s mysteries supplied by a knowledge of natural laws.
A follow-up News-Advertiser article went into more detail about Archibald’s discussion of how the newly-discovered concept of radioactivity allowed scientists to determine the true age of the earth. Apparently geologists of the day were “troubled” by estimates that our planet was “only” one hundred million years old. Archibald “gave assurance to the troubled geologists” that the earth’s age was much greater than previously supposed, allowing plenty of time for the formation of sedimentary deposits and other geological changes in the past.
At the end of his lecture, the audience, which filled one of the main lecture rooms in UBC’s Chemistry building, peppered Archibald with more questions:
… whether radium caused the heat of the sun, and if so how long it might be expected to keep hot; whether the doctrine of Christian Science, that there was no such thing as matter, was sound; whether a stone building was really solid or composed of particles moving so fast that they seemed to be solid, like the spokes of a moving wheel; whether radium cured cancer; how the world and the planets got started in the first place. These and more commonplace questions poured in as fast as they could be answered or avoided, and produced a highly entertaining half-hour.
It is obvious from such accounts that the Vancouver Institute had found an audience. The rest of the 1916/17 term would feature lectures on such diverse topics as Renaissance architecture, English literature, bacteria (presented by President Wesbrook, a noted bacteriologist), “the high cost of living”, precious metals and banking, and the early settlement of British Columbia, among others. Citizens from all backgrounds – professionals and workers, academics and laypersons – would certainly find something of interest in the Institute’s programme. This would remain true for the next one hundred years.