Queen's has honoured national and international luminaries and people who have played an exceptional role in the university's development with different kinds of honorary degrees. These are:
- Doctorate of Laws (LLD) – the most frequently awarded, is awarded to those who have made an extraordinary contribution in the areas of public service, arts and culture, the law, government, journalism, education, and the national and global community.
- Doctorate of Science (DSc) – was awarded to some but not all of the distinguished scientists who received honorary degrees, depending on their preference. it is awarded to those whose achievements in the realm of pure or applied science or engineering made a significant difference on a national or global scale.
- Doctorate of Divinity (DD) – awarded on the recommendation of the School of Religion (formerly Theological College)
- Honorary Master of Arts (MA Hon) – rarely awarded, this degree was given to members of Queen's non-academic staff who made exceptional contributions to the University. It is no longer awarded.
- Honorary Master of Science (MSc Hon) – rarely awarded, this degree was given to members of Queen's non-academic staff who made exceptional contributions to the University. It is no longer awarded.
The first three degrees - the LLD, DSC, and DD - are always honorary; none of these degrees are ever conferred at Queen's "by examination."
The Doctorate of Divinity is the oldest of the five. Queen's granted its first honorary degrees - these Doctorate of Divinity degrees - in 1858 to two prominent Presbyterian clergymen: the Rev James C. Muir and the Rev Alexander MacGillivray.
A more famous name was called when Queen's awarded its first two Doctorate of Laws degrees in 1863: these went to Sir John A. Macdonald and the Rev Michael Willis.
The Doctorate of Science degree was first awarded more recently, in 1951, to William Percy Dobson, a prominent Ontario Hydro researcher.
The first (and only) Honorary Master of Science degree was awarded in 1953 to staff member Ronald Day Bradfield. The first Honorary Master of Arts degree was awarded in 1970 to staff member Kathleen Healey. Healey was the Permanent Secretary Treasurer of the Queen’s Summer School Association and Assistant Director of University Extension from 1943 to 1970. There is a student award founded in her name by the QUSSA. The second (and last) Honorary Master of Arts degree to be awarded to in 1979 to James Edward Wright. Wright was also part of the first group of Distinguished Service Award winners in 1975. Notable, Queen's highly regarded and longest-serving registrar, Jean Royce received an honorary doctorate of laws in 1968, rather than the MA Hon or MSc Hon.
Another notable first came in 1897, when Queen's became the first university in Canada to grant an honorary degree to a woman. She was the Countess of Aberdeen, founding President of the National Council of Women, founder of the Victorian Order of Nurses, and wife of Governor General the Earl of Aberdeen. She was granted a Doctorate of Laws.
Canadian Governors General and Prime Ministers have been favourite candidates for Queen's honorary degrees.
Other prominent national and international figures so honoured have been:
- Prince George, later George V (1901)
- Andrew Carnegie (1906)
- Alexander Graham Bell (1909)
- Prince Edward, later Edward VII (1919)
- Stephen Leacock (1919)
- President Franklin Roosevelt (1938)
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1948)
- Robertson Davies (1962)
- Northrop Frye (1962)
- United Nations Secretary General U Thant (1965)
- John Kenneth Galbraith (1967)
- Lorne Greene (1971)
- Tommy Douglas (1972)
- Margaret Atwood (1974)
- Oscar Peterson (1976)
- Prince Charles (1991)
- Donald Sutherland (1995)
- Carol Shields (1996)
- The Right Honourable Hal Jackman (1997)
- Madam Justice Louise Arbour (1999)
- Atom Egoyan (2000)
The Senate committee on Honorary Degrees considers all nominations for honorary degrees, recommends a list of recipients to the Senate and also advises the Senate on general policies relating to honorary degrees.