“…how valuable few of us realize:” – National Research Council
Several members of the University in a quiet way have been doing very valuable research work—how valuable few of us realize.”
—1916-1917 President’s Report.
In this quote, President Walter Murray is obliquely referring to the University’s relationship with the newly created Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of Canada. It was soon to be known as the National Research Council (NRC). The relationship between the NRC and the University has been a long and fruitful one. If you look at what research was initiated and funded as a result of Murray’s NRC involvement, you can see the genesis of many areas of scientific excellence on the campus today.
Walter Murray was one of the founding members, serving for 15 years from 1916 until 1931. Murray was honoured and surprised at his selection. In a 9 November 1916 letter from Sir George Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, Murray was encouraged to be the “representative from the North-West in order to provide for the proper geographical representation, as well as to ensure the sympathy and cooperation of the West in the general scheme.” Murray’s reply came five days later – “I would very gladly do everything in my power to meet your wishes, and would esteem it a privilege to co-operate, but I seriously question my fitness for the position.” He went on to recommend individuals he felt were more suitable candidates. In the end he acquiesced.
The timing of the Council’s creation is important. By 1916 the war in Europe was two years old and had settled into a bloody stalemate. To many the path to victory was through scientific innovation. Canada’s allies, Britain and the United States had had “organized invention and research boards in conjunction with munitions work…” These would serve as a model for the Canadian initiative. The original name, "Honorary Advisory Council" accurately described its early nature and function: it was a committee of unpaid advisers, who met four times a year or more in Ottawa. It immediately funded research committees for special needs, offered science fellowships at Canadian universities, and carried out a research inventory.
Murray acted immediately organizing a meeting of western university chemists in Saskatoon at the end of December 1916. The subjects discussed included postgraduate assistance for scientific research, library facilities in western universities, the advisability of closer contact between western Canadian industry and the western universities, and what western scientists could do in order to ensure the proper development and conservation of the western lignite fields. Murray made sure that the problems raised were placed on the agenda of the first meeting of the Council.
Two areas of immediate concern to the Prairie Provinces were swamp fever in horses and the disease in cereal plants called wheat rust. The later was causing heavy damage in western Canada in the summer of 1916, one estimate being that as much as 100 million bushels of grain had been lost as a result. This was a dual blow to the West’s economy and the food needed to feed the allied war effort. A temporary committee of the Council, Plant and Animal Diseases, was created with Murray as chairman. The committee convened a conference for August 16-18, 1917, with representatives of the Dominion Department of Agriculture and the prairie universities and agricultural colleges. Research was to be centered at the U of S under the guidance of W.P. Thompson. His team would go on to make several breakthroughs in the development of rust resistant wheat hybrids.
Murray’s work on the council was time consuming, particularly in the early years. His absence from the University did not go unnoticed. In March 22, 1917, the Board of Governors expressed their discontent: “The Board was of the opinion that the President could not continue to give as much time as hitherto to the work of the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research without serious interference with his duties, and he should take steps to withdraw at an early date if the same demands continue.” There is no record of a response. He remained as a member of the NRC until 1931. When Murray left the NRC the role of the organization was changing from an advisory council to directed research from the laboratories centered in Ottawa.