Make-believe McGillians

Some of the University’s most remarkable graduates – daring doctors, stellar scientists and international adventurers – never actually existed.

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

There is something about McGill that captures the imagination – or so it would seem given the many times the University finds itself mentioned in works of fiction.

“Coming of age” stories, featuring young, university-aged adults fumbling their way through the world, have always held appeal, so that’s probably part of the allure. The fact that so many McGill graduates go on to make their mark in the world of literature – “write what you know,” creative fiction teachers have long counselled – is likely another factor.

In any case, there is no shortage of fictitious McGill characters lining the shelves of bookstores. Authors as varied as Clark Blaise, Dany Laferrière, Brian Moore, Kathy Reichs and William Weintraub, BA’47, have incorporated McGill into their works. Heck, even Marvel Comics got in on the act – the hulking Canadian superhero Sasquatch once taught physics at McGill.

Here are a few of the more memorable characters that have been associated with McGill in novels, TV shows and films.


Alan McGregor: Reluctant “mother” figure

Sporting a slim moustache and a dour disposition, Gary Cooper portrayed a heroic, hot-headed McGill graduate in the 1935 film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

Lieutenant Alan McGregor is part of an elite British unit stationed in the northern frontier of pre-independence India, where they regularly endure enemy sniper fire. “I’m just a fool Scotch-Canadian come into your outfit to get action,” McGregor explains to one of his superiors. McGregor isn’t one for tact and his blunt talk tends to aggravate the people he reports to. “I can’t keep my mouth shut,” he muses, “that’s my trouble.”

He shares his quarters with a pair of recently-arrived junior officers, the needling Lieutenant Forsythe and the callow Donald Stone. McGregor is protective of the inexperienced Stone, in part, because he feels badly for the younger man – Stone’s father, the unit’s commanding officer, maintains a chilly distance from his son, fearful of evincing any hint of preferential treatment,. For his part, Forsythe enjoys teasing McGregor for his “maternal” qualities, frequently serenading the Canadian with a song about “Mother McGregor.”

McGregor and Forsythe join forces, however, when Stone is kidnapped by Mohammed Khan, a Harvard-educated local chieftain who is organizing an uprising against the British. During a failed rescue attempt, the duo are captured by Khan and tortured for information. “We have ways of making men talk,” warns Khan – a line that would enter into movie lore as a much-referenced classic.

McGregor and Forsythe are soon plotting their escape in order to destroy Khan’s nearby arsenal stash. They quarrel over who is best qualified for the task, which requires a quick dash while dodging enemy fire.

Forsythe: “About 200 yards I’d say.”
McGregor: “Nearer 100.”
Forsythe: “My last year at Oxford, I won the 220.”
McGregor: “I ran the 110 flat at McGill.”
Forsythe: “It’s nearer 200. And where is McGill?”
McGregor: “McGill is in Montreal and this is a job for a 100-yard man.”

The film earned seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and helped cement Cooper’s status as an up-and-coming leading man.


Jerome Martell: Based on Bethune?

Part-time McGill instructor and radio commentator George Stewart might be the narrator of Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends The Night, but the self-effacing Stewart would be the first to admit that he isn’t the book’s most riveting character. That honor easily goes to Jerome Martell, the mercurial McGill-trained surgeon, who is simultaneously Stewart’s friend, surrogate big brother and romantic rival.

The charismatic Martell can be remarkably tender in his dealings with patients, but he is impetuous and reckless in his personal affairs, causing great damage to both his marriage and his promising career.

Martell risks everything, including his life, to tend to the medical needs of Loyalist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War. Viewing fascism as a toxic force poised to sweep across the globe, Martell believes he must take action. Having survived a childhood trauma of Dickensian horror, Martell doesn’t take civil society for granted.

Complicating Stewart and Martell’s relationship is the fact that both men adore the same woman – Catherine Carey, who, though born with a dangerously fragile heart, is determined to live life to the fullest. It is during her undergraduate studies at McGill that Carey first displays a newly zestful approach to life, earning a reproach from the dean of women for her partying behaviour.

George and Catherine’s romance is based, at least in part, on MacLennan’s marriage to Dorothy Duncan. Like Catherine, Duncan was a talented artist who faced illness with uncommon grace.

Many have noted the parallels between Martell and the Royal Victoria Hospital’s legendary Norman Bethune – like Martell, Bethune was a gifted and fierce-tempered surgeon who abandoned a comfortable life in Montreal to oppose fascism in Spain. In MacLennan’s own mind, though, Martell drew inspiration from another McGill luminary altogether – law professor and social activist F.R. Scott, BCL’27, LLD’67.

The Watch That Ends The Night earned MacLennan, who taught English literature at McGill for almost 30 years, his fifth and final Governor General’s Literary Award in 1959.


Marie St. Jacques: Bourne’s beloved

It sure wasn’t love at first sight.

Jason Bourne, arguably the best-known pseudo-assassin in the annals of English fiction, is running for his life and suffering from amnesia when he first encounters Marie St. Jacques in the pages of Robert Ludlum’s 1980 mega-best-seller The Bourne Identity. Bourne abducts St. Jacques at gunpoint from a conference she is attending in Zurich, forcing her to help him elude his pursuers. Initially, she is understandably anxious to get away from the guy. Things quickly thaw, though, when Bourne risks his own neck saving her from a brutal thug. She returns the favour, arranging for medical care for his wounds. More importantly, St. Jacques is the first to grasp that Bourne isn’t quite what he seems. With her help, he starts to uncover who he really is – and it isn’t Bourne.

Turns out he is David Webb, a foreign service officer who has been trained by U.S. intelligence to masquerade as a contract assassin – it’s part of a plan to flush out a deadly killer who regards “Bourne” as his chief rival.

As for St. Jacques, a French-Canadian who grew up on an Albertan ranch, she works for the Canadian government as an expert in international banking. At one point in the book, as she begins to enjoy a much friendlier rapport with her former kidnapper– the pair will soon become lovers – she tells him about how her time at McGill changed her life. “I’d looked at books as natural enemies, and suddenly, here I was in a place surrounded by people who were caught up in them, having a marvelous time.”

Describing St. Jacques’s academic path at McGill, Ludlum writes, “She gravitated first to history, then reasoned that most of history was shaped by economic forces – power and significance had to be paid for – and so she tested the theories of economics. And was consumed.”

St. Jacques appears in all three of Ludlum’s Bourne books. She gets kidnapped again in The Bourne Supremacy – shadowy forces use the abduction to manipulate Webb/Bourne into taking on a new mission in East Asia. Still, she is no hapless damsel – she demonstrates her mettle as she affects her escape, clubbing her guard “with the strength of a ranch girl quite used to the bullwhip in a cattle drive.”

St. Jacques doesn’t appear in the recent Bourne films that starred Matt Damon. Her spot is taken up by a different character – Franka Potente’s Marie Helena Kreutz. However, St. Jacques did turn up prominently in the 1988 TV miniseries based on The Bourne Identity, with Jaclyn Smith playing the role.


Miriam Greenberg: Barney’s best bride

Barney Panofsky first encounters the blue-eyed, dark-haired woman of his dreams at a wedding reception. Unfortunately, it is his reception and she isn’t the woman he just wed. That Barney, rebounding from the wreckage of two disastrous marriages, eventually wins the heart of the quick-witted and graceful Miriam Greenberg, becomes the greatest triumph of his life. That he destroys their relationship through his own insensitivity and recklessness becomes his greatest regret.

Barney’s doomed love for Miriam drives much of the action in Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s final novel and an international bestseller when it was published in 1997.

In her student days at McGill, Miriam attracted the attention of enough admirers to make her a serious candidate for Winter Carnival Queen, but she declined the title, preferring to focus on lower-key, artsier activities. At McGill, she also earned the barbed envy of a shrill classmate who was also in attendance at that fateful wedding reception – the second Mrs. Panofsky, whose tenuous grip on her new husband’s affections would soon be severed completely by Miriam’s very presence.

Sweet-natured but no pushover, Miriam has a knack for drawing the best out of the frequently caustic Barney. She forgives him his foibles, but what she won’t tolerate, after witnessing the damage done to her mother by her father’s infidelities, is betrayal.

Miriam is far from the first McGill grad to turn up in Richler’s work, but none of her predecessors were treated with such affection by the acerbic author. The McGill students and alums who turn up in books like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Joshua Then and Now tend to be self-regarding jerks. Richler was also never shy about mentioning the discriminatory practices that once existed at McGill – how, in the thirties and forties, an unofficial quota system required prospective Jewish students to have higher marks than their non-Jewish counterparts to gain entry.

That said, Richler was pleased to receive an honorary degree from McGill in 2000. At the ceremony he ruefully acknowledged that his own marks weren’t good enough to get into McGill, quota or no quota. Richler’s family has recently been instrumental in establishing a new Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence Program that is raising funds to help nurture promising young authors at McGill.

Barney’s Version won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. A film adaptation, produced by Robert Lantos, BA’70, DLitt’00, will be released later this year, starring Paul Giamatti as Barney and Rosamund Pike as Miriam.


James Wilson: House-bound

Cantankerous, abrasive and witheringly sarcastic, Gregory House is not an easy man to love. The fact that an all-around great guy like James Wilson does, gives millions of television viewers cause to think that one of TV’s greatest curmudgeons might have a redeeming quality or two, apart from his brilliant diagnostic skills.

The two doctors, of course, are characters on the Emmy Award-winning TV series House, which debuted on the Fox network in 2004. Wilson, the head of oncology at the fictitious Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital where both he and House work, is the title character’s best friend. In all likelihood, he is House’s only friend.

Wilson tends to be House’s polar opposite in terms of temperament. He is empathic, even-tempered and good-humoured – qualities that frequently draw scorn from his sardonic buddy. In one episode, as House impatiently knocks on Wilson’s door, he declares “I know you’re in there. I can hear you caring.” In another instance, Wilson insists, “I’m not always nice. I’m not nice to you.” House responds, “Because you know nice bores me. Hence, still nice.”

Wilson is one of the few people on the show capable of matching wits with House. In the estimation of Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker, “The dry interplay between [House and Wilson] has always been the best thing about the series.” Robert Sean Leonard, the actor who plays Wilson, was nominated in 2009 along with his castmates for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama.

Wilson has been spotted in a McGill sweatshirt in at least two episodes of the show (and a now deceased girlfriend wore the garment on another occasion), sparking speculation that he might be a McGill grad. A representative for House creator David Shore (a Canadian, but not a McGill alumnus) recently confirmed Wilson’s McGill bona fides. The good doctor did his undergraduate studies at McGill. A tale to be told in a future episode, perhaps.


Agnes White: Modeled on Maude

It’s no secret that Agnes White, the bold, brilliant, but occasionally befuddled heroine of Claire Holden Rothman’s recent best-seller, The Heart Specialist, is based on the real life of one of McGill’s most fabled professors, Maude Abbott, BA1890.

And why not? Abbott’s own life was the stuff of fiction.

At a time when both the academic and medical communities were resistant – if not downright hostile – to the notion of women joining their ranks, Abbott persevered, emerging as a pioneering figure in the study of diseased hearts.

White’s bumpy path in the novel mirrors many of Abbott’s own experiences. Like Abbott, White becomes one of McGill’s first female students, excelling in her studies only to find that McGill is unsympathetic towards her medical school ambitions. “Can you think of a patient in a critical case waiting for half an hour while a medical lady fixes her bonnet or adjusts her bustle,” scoffs one McGill medical professor in the book.

White earns her medical degree at nearby Bishop's University instead, returning to McGill to supervise its mishmash of a medical museum, transforming it into an invaluable resource. Her accomplishments are all the more remarkable given her troubled childhood – her father abandoned the family, while she lost her mother to tuberculosis at an early age. Again, all this was true for Abbott as well.

Like Abbott, White picks up a powerful champion as her career progresses – William Howlett, a natural-born charmer and the most celebrated doctor of his day. Howlett’s real-life counterpart is clearly Abbott’s mentor, Sir William Osler, MDCM1872, though Howlett is eventually revealed to be a much more ambiguous figure than the revered Osler.

Rothman, BA’81, BCL’85, does a fine job weaving bits of real McGill history into her narrative – the fiery destruction of McGill’s first medical building, for instance, and the establishment of an overseas McGill hospital during the First World War. And White is much more than simply a stand-in for Abbott. She emerges as a truly memorable character – a genius at examining hearts, but a little dense when it comes to deciphering the contents of her own. The Heart Specialist was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was named one of Quill & Quire’s books of the year.


Alice Charles and Clara Stewart: Growing up is hard to do

Plenty of university graduates remember their undergraduate days as a period when they struggled to understand themselves and their place in the world as much as they struggled to understand the material in their textbooks.

Alice Charles, the tongue-tied and timid heroine of Golda Fried’s Nellcott Is My Darling (a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Prize in 2005), is a case in point. Alice has led a fairly sheltered life in Toronto – she guesses that the only reason her parents allow her to leave the city for university is because her dad is such a ferociously proud McGill alum. “Her mom had cried as Alice was packing her duffel bag like she was going off to war. ‘My baby, my baby, my baby,’ her mom said.” When Alice tentatively expands her horizons by joining the McGill Film Society, she feels “like a little tea cup full of fear.”

Initially lost in the shadow of her more boisterous McGill dorm-mates, the man-eating Allegra and the snarky, sporty Cricket, Alice slowly, awkwardly, begins to find her way.

At one point, she muses about her favourite things about McGill: “She liked the old buildings of the campus, the tall black iron gates that guarded some of the entrances, the park in the centre where the architecture students would try to level some traffic-light-yellow tripod-like machines. The Arts Building steps where people hung out to see and to be seen. The main floor of the Redpath Library, which had a section called ‘the fishbowl’ because it was enclosed in glass and had comfy chairs where you could read.”

Clara Stewart, on the surface at least, might be much more confident than Alice, but the two still have plenty in common. For one thing, both are stressed out by sex. Alice is increasingly uncomfortable with her status as a virgin, while Clara is confused by a newfound attraction to other women. “Liking girls was scary and, yet, not liking them would be disappointing,” Clara frets. “What did she want? She had no idea. God, she wished she were 30 and had her act together.”

The perpetually broke Clara shares an apartment with a pair of fellow McGill Daily staffers that’s adorned with weirdly coloured walls, stacks of unwashed dishes and thick ashtrays nicked from local restaurants. A new friendship with Gabby, an assertive volunteer at the McGill Women’s Union, evolves into something else. The story, set in 1989, involves the horror of the École Polytechnique Massacre and the painful memories the event stirs up for Clara.

Clara’s tale is told in “Are You Committed,” part of the 2009 short story collection This One’s Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz. Both books zero in on McGill student life with a knowing eye. That’s no accident since both authors – Fried, BA’94, and Holtz, BA’90, MA’93, MLIS’95 – experienced that life for themselves.


I owe a debt of thanks to Rob Michel, MA’69, PhD’86, who has long been interested in the way in which McGill has been portrayed in works of fiction. Rob suggested some of the books I referenced in this piece. He has also done some fine writing himself on this subject in the pages of Fontanus (see "Floreat Plutoria: Satirical Fiction About McGill" in Volume 9 [1996])