Williamson, The Rev James (1806-1895)

[Professor Williamson]
James Williamson

In the summer of 1842, newly appointed Principal Thomas Liddell went looking for teaching talent in Scotland. There, he hired the university’s first full-time professor, James Williamson, to teach natural philosophy and mathematics.

For £375 a year, the 36-year-old Professor Williamson was expected to teach a gamut of subjects: Latin, Greek, logic, mathematics, rhetoric, physics, and church history.

To ease the strain, Professor Williamson, like many 19th-century academics, would supplement his income by collecting “class fees” from students. He thus began a career that would span 53 years at Queen’s.

Professor Williamson was steeped in Scottish theology and pedagogy. An MA from the University of Edinburgh was followed by his ordination into the Presbyterian Church in 1851. However, his truest inclination was to the study of science and astronomy. Nevertheless, at the fledgling college in Kingston he was a jack-of-all-trades, at times teaching the entire range of offerings in arts in a single year.

Professor Williamson spread his talents even farther. He joined pioneering geological expeditions to the Canadian West headed by William Logan, the director of the Geological Survey of Canada. He was a founding member of the Botanical Society of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada. In 1854, he acted as moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada.

Back at Queen’s, he sat on the committee of superintendence which oversaw campus buildings and helped to draft the college’s first set of academic regulations in 1851. He also facilitated the opening of the medical faculty in 1854, raised money for the university in endowment campaigns, served as secretary for the Board of Trustees, and wrote the beginning sections of the Domesday Book.

Never a prolific scholar in print, Professor Williamson was instrumental in establishing Ontario’s first observatory in Kingston. He served as the first director of the Queen's Observatory and introduced the college’s first courses in astronomy.

Affectionately known to his colleagues and students as “Billy,” he was a keen supporter of Queen’s rugby footballers, attending games in a stove pipe-hat and tailcoat.

Passed over for the principalship in 1864 in favour of William Snodgrass, he later became Queen's first vice-principal, serving from 1882-1895.

Williamson's first marriage to Margaret Gilchrist produced a son, James; however she died in 1847. His second marriage was to Margaret Macdonald, sister of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Williamson remained at Queen's until his death in 1895.

In 1891, Professor Williamson was a eulogist at Sir John A. Macdonald’s funeral in the Cataraqui Cemetery where he himself would be buried, in the Macdonald plot, four years later.