The Greatest of the Greats

by Daniel Chonchol, BCL’81, LLB’82
(Photo: Claudio Calligaris)

After nearly 60,000 votes and months of sometimes furious debate, the results are in for the Greatest McGillians contest. And the winner was a bit of a surprise.

Thomas Chang, BSc’57, MDCM’61, PhD’65, might not have the Nobel Prize pedigree of third place finisher Ernest Rutherford, or the worldwide celebrity status of runner-up Leonard Cohen, BA’55, DLitt’92, but the director of McGill’s Artificial Cells and Organs Research Centre clearly earned the rock-solid support of a sizeable number of the voters who took part in the contest.

Chang invented the artificial blood cell in his dorm room as a McGill undergraduate and became an early pioneer of biomedical engineering in the process. His later work led to, among other things, a treatment for drug poisoning that was used around the world.

The contest, developed by the McGill Alumni Association (MAA) as part of the celebration of the University’s 190th anniversary, called on members of the McGill community to nominate candidates for the title of Greatest McGillian, then vote on a final field of 20. Other nominees who earned substantial support included William Osler, Wilder Penfield, Brenda Milner, John Humphrey, and, of course, the University’s founder, James McGill.

The contest aimed to educate as well as to spark discussion, and MAA executive director Honora Shaughnessy, MLS’73, feels that those goals were accomplished. “There are now thousands in the McGill community who are more aware of the achievements of someone like a Thomas Chang, or a Bernard Belleau, who co-developed the highly effective anti-AIDS drug 3TC.”

The contest might be closed, but the Greatest McGillians will live on. The 20 finalists, and some 30 other Great McGillians, will be enshrined in a new web-based, historical timeline highlighting McGill’s history through its greatest achievers. Contest organizers plan to “induct” a new set of McGillians into the timeline each year.