An eminent classicist and a bright, lively man who had an easy way with words, Sir William Hamilton Fyfe was the 10th Queen's Principal (1930-1936). He was the first who was not a clergyman and the last of several to be recruited directly from Britain.
Fyfe was known for his witty, often-biting, sense of humour and he had an excellent scholarly reputation which brought a level of academic prestige to Queen's. The fact that he was not a clergyman put Queen's more closely in touch with an increasingly secular and scientific age. His cultured English background also made him a good publicist for the university in those years when Canada still felt a colonial inferiority complex.
Born in Kensington, London, England, Fyfe had a distinguished education. He attended Fettes College in Edinburgh, and then Merton College at Oxford, from which he received a double first in Classics. Fyfe taught at Radley College from 1901-1903 after his graduation and then moved to Merton College at Oxford where he remained for 15 years and gained an excellent reputation as a precise scholar.
Fyfle married Dorothea White in 1908 and they had three children - Maurice, Margaret, and Christopher.
During WWI, he served with the rank of Major in the Intelligence Department of the War Office.
In 1919, he became the Headmaster of Christ's Hospital School in Sussex, better known as "the Bluecoat School," where he solidified his growing reputation as a first-class educator by modernizing the curriculum and publishing editions of Aristotle's Poetics and Longinus On the Sublime in the Loeb Classics series. It was from this position that he was recruited to the Principalship of Queen's in 1930.
Fyfe arrived in Canada with a rather low opinion of "colonial education" and was determined to change the focus of the University away from what he saw as vocational training to concentrate on the pure Arts and Sciences and reaffirm classical scholarly values. Yet, even had there been money to transform Queen's as Fyfe wished, there were many who did not share his low opinion of the more practical business and vocational courses at Queen's. Unfortunately, as Fyfe so often enjoyed pointing out, he arrived with the Depression and there was little money to make the sweeping changes he desired. Some progress was made: admission standards were raised slightly, new scholarships were established, and a resident artist (Goodridge Roberts) and resident musician (Frank Harrison) were brought to Queen's.
As Fyfe disliked administrative duties, he was quite content to leave most of the real running of the university in the hands of the formidable Vice-Principal, William Everett McNeill. The economy was the order of the day and, as Fyfe admitted himself in his yearly Principal's report, it was the Draconian penny-pinching of W. E. McNeill that saved the University from complete financial ruin during those hard times.
Frustrated by the lack of funds available for his projects, most notably his ill-fated quest to acquire a particle accelerator, Fyfe found other things on campus to dislike as well. He felt very strongly that football was given far too prominent a place in University life and remarked unenthusiastically on the "student activities multifarious and innumerable; and unreasonable wealth of dances." Indeed, he wrote a satirical poem on this theme and it was published in the Queen's Quarterly. Queen's took great pride in Fyfe's leadership, however, and he managed to bring something of the old spirit of British scholarship to Queen's, even if he didn't realize it himself.
In 1936, Sir William Fyfe was offered and accepted the position of Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, a position once held by his wife's uncle. Many were sad to see him go, although some people whose resentment he had earned through his constant criticisms of Queen's and Canadian universities in general were less upset about his departure. Fyfe was highly successful at Aberdeen and increasingly drawn into public work. He remained in that post until his retirement in 1948 and was knighted in 1942 in recognition of his many accomplishments.
He died in London in 1965.