Memorable Manitobans: William Lewis Morton (1908-1980)
Born at Gladstone on 13 December 1908, son of William Morton, he was educated at the University of Manitoba (President of Students’ Union 1931, Editor of The Manitoban 1930-1931, BA 1932) and Oxford University (BA 1934, BLitt 1935, MA 1937), which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. Between 1935 and 1950, he held teaching positions at St. John’s College, United College, and Brandon College. From 1950 to 1964, he was Professor and Head of the Department of History at the University of Manitoba. During the years 1963 to 1966, he was Provost of University College, in the University of Manitoba, having been instrumental in the creation of the College. He moved to Peterborough, Ontario in 1966 to become the first Master of Champlain College in Trent University. He was also Vanier Professor of Canadian History at Trent from 1969 to 1975.
In 1975 he chose to return to Winnipeg and to the University of Manitoba as Distinguished Visiting Professor, but his association with Trent University continued with his election as its Chancellor in 1977. At the time of his death he had just relinquished this position, and had been appointed Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. The academic year 1979-1980 had marked his last year of full-time teaching.
William Morton’s contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of Manitoba and to his profession were rich ones. He was active in the Canadian Institute of International Affairs and the John W. Dafoe Foundation in the 1940s and 1950s. He helped sustain the Historical and Scientific Society (the Manitoba Historical Society) throughout his career, serving as its President from 1953 to 1955. He was instrumental in founding the Manitoba Record Society in the early 1960s, for which he contributed Manitoba: Birth of a Province. In addition, he served on numerous national committees and councils, including those of the Canadian Historical Association (President, 1959-1960), the Champlain Society, the Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Board of the Directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Director, 1958-1964). He was a founding board member for the Manitoba Centennial Corporation (1963).
The richness and diversity of Morton’s historical writing are well-known. At the time of his death, he had written or edited sixteen books and more than fifty articles; yet more significant than the volume of his writing was their range. Third Crossing: A History of the First Quarter Century of the Town and District of Gladstone in the Province of Manitoba (1946, written with Margaret Morton Fahrni), The Progressive Party in Canada (1950, winner of the Governor-General’s Medal), Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal and Other Papers (1956, edited for the Champlain Society), and Manitoba: A History (1957) were examples of his life-long commitment to local and regional history. He has also co-authored such books as Cuthbert Grant of Grantown and Third Crossing. Yet The Canadian Identity (1961), The Kingdom of Canada (1963), and The Critical Years (1964) provide evidence of his equally-deep concern for national life and values. His One University: A History of the University of Manitoba (1957) remains a major scholarly work on that institution. And his many scholarly and occasional essays fully reflect the remarkable range of his historical curiousity. Perhaps one of his most lasting contributions to the historical professions, however, will prove to be the Canadian Centenary Series. Largely shaped under his direction as Executive Editor, the series took much of his time from its inception in 1957; by the time of his death in 1980, it was nearing completion and he relished the possibility with an uninhibited enthusiasm.
William Morton was a much honoured and much loved man. Among the former can be included his membership in the Royal Society of Canada, the Tyrrell Medal of the Canadian History (awarded in 1958 by the Royal Society), a Canadian Centenary Medal in 1967, appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and honourary degrees from the Universities of Toronto, New Brunswick, Manitoba, and McGill. The latter is less easily expressed. Those who came to know him quickly noticed and appreciated the gentleness, the dry humour, and the genuine humility that lay behind his rather formal presence. He would readily state that he was the last of a dying breed - a Victorian and a “genuine Tory” - but he could be drawn to admit (always with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes) that he had more than once voted for Mackenzie King. He was a man of enormous physical energy, always willing to help colleagues in any way possible. His biography of Henry Youle Hind: Geologist, Publicist, Promoter, appeared shortly before his death, and he left a substantially-completed first volume of a projected two-volume biography of Sir Donald A. Smith. This was a sign that his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity remained with him to the end.
Above all, perhaps, William Morton will be remembered as a public historian. “History is not an academic mystery,” he once said. “It’s what the community thinks about itself, how it sorts out ideas.” And he helped many Canadian do so. “What I share, most of all, with Dr. Morton,” wrote Margaret Laurence, his successor as Chancellor of Trent University, “is the sense of my place, the Prairies, and of my people ... within the context of their many and varied histories, and the desire to make all these things come alive in the reader’s mind ... He was a great human being, a great historian, a great and beloved Canadian.” Few who were privileged to have known William Lewis Morton would disagree with this expression of gratitude for his life.
In 1967, he was inducted into the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manitoba. He was awarded the Centennial Medal of Honour by the Manitoba Historical Society (1970) and the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977). He was a founding board member of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature and served on the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba.
He died of a stroke at Medicine Hat, Alberta on 7 December 1980. He had just finished a term as guest professor at the University of Calgary and was on his way home to Winnipeg. His papers are at Queen’s University but some are also at the Archives of Manitoba. He is commemorated by a plaque in front of the Gladstone and District Museum.
His articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:
“Giant team to plan for centennial,” Winnipeg Free Press, 13 September 1963, page 3.
The foregoing is drawn largely from a biographical sketch by A. B. McKillop for the Canadian Historical Association, a copy of which is contained in the Biographical Vertical File at the Manitoba Legislative Library.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 11 January 2021