Grant is the most important of all Queen's principals. More famous in his day that any Queen's Principal before or since, Grant transformed the university in his 25 years of leadership (1877-1902) from a struggling (see Presbyterian Church) into a dynamic national institution.
He was born into a farming family in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. At the age of eight, he lost his right hand in an agricultural accident, which guaranteed that his future would lie in mental rather than physical labour. There is a story that a few hours after his accident, the young George Grant, still lying in bed, asked to be brought a pencil so that he could teach himself to write with his left hand. Although it is likely that this story is a part of the 'Grant legend,' the fact that it was widely believed shows the strength of his character.
He was educated at Pictou Academy, the West River Seminary, and the University of Glasgow, where he was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1860.
From 1863 to 1877, he served as Minister of St Matthew's Church in Halifax. One of his parishioners there was Sandford Fleming, who in 1871 was appointed Chief Engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1872, Fleming invited Grant to join him as a member of the CPR's survey party for the trans-Canada railway, and Grant wrote an account of the gruelling cross-country journey in his popular book Ocean to Ocean. That trip deepened Grant's ardent nationalism that, along with his profound religious convictions, formed the basis of his vision for Queen's.
He was selected as Principal of the University in 1877. Queen's mission, he believed, should be to join moral and scientific education, and sacred and secular knowledge to produce graduates who would build the growing country in a spirit of dedicated service rather than material gain.
First, however, he had to put the chronically poor university on a firm financial footing. This he did with a series of spectacularly successful fundraising campaigns, which he started by donating $2,500 of his $2,750 salary. Grant travelled the country and made the appeal for Queen's himself. This campaign resulted in $150,000 being raised in only eight months, an astonishing feat. Theological Hall was a gift of the citizens of Kingston, donated as part of this campaign. The funds provided only a brief respite, however, from Grant's continual problem. Queen's was always growing more quickly than its income: between 1870 and 1887, enrollment sextupled while funding only doubled.
In 1883, the question of unification with the University of Toronto was brought forth. Grant was opposed to the idea, not only because he wanted to maintain Queen's independence for its own sake, but because he did not want to see a 'monopoly on education' in Ontario. The problem was that Queen's future looked uncertain if funds could not be raised and some thought that amalgamation was the only choice. In the end, Queen's constituency were 99 per cent in favour of staying in Kingston.
Grant was invigorated by the faith in Queen's and in 1887 he launched the now famous Jubilee Campaign, appealing to those who had voted to keep Queen's independent to provide the funds to make it possible. A quarter of a million dollars - a fortune in those days - was needed immediately, but Grant had faith in the loyalty that Queen's inspired. "The supporters of Queen's have been tested before," he said, "and have never failed." Within less than a year, $260,000 had been pledged. A plaque honouring the donors hangs in Grant Hall.
The University began to attract first-rate faculty and increasing numbers of students. It began a program of graduate studies and added new buildings, faculties, and departments - the most important being the Ontario School of Mining and Agriculture, the precursor to Smith Engineering. In 1889, Grant had the Charter amended so that Trustees need no longer be Presbyterians, the first step towards a non-denominational institution. In 1890, he raised matriculation standards and in 1892, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons - which had once been Queen's Medical Faculty but had separated years ago - rejoined the University, something Grant had been trying to accomplish for years (see Health Sciences, Faculty of).
Grant also wrote and spoke frequently and forcefully on the main political questions of the day. In his 25 years at Queen's, he inspired a deep devotion in students, who affectionately called him "Georgie, Our King." In his final years, as his health was deteriorating, they spearheaded a drive for a new stone building to be named in his honour. Grant Hall opened shortly after his death and, with its tall limestone tower, is Queen's best-known landmark. A plaque that hangs in Grant Hall to honour him is inscribed with the phrase, Si monumentum requiris circumspice, which translates from the Latin as "If you want to see his monument, just look around you."
Several of Grant's descendants have also made their mark on Canada. His son, William Lawson Grant, taught history at Queen's from 1909 until the First World War, and co-authored his father's biography, George Monro Grant, with alumnus F.C. Hamilton (see Books about Queen's). His grandson, George Parkin Grant, was one of Canada's most distinguished philosophers and the author of the influential book Lament for a Nation: the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. The Principal's great-grandson, Michael Ignatieff, is well known in Canada and Britain as an author, television host, Member of Parliament, and expert on international affairs.
He is buried in the Cataraqui Cemetery.