A new anthology includes Beatty presentations from (l to r) Charles Taylor, Roxane Gay and Muhammad Yunus (Photos of Taylor and Gay: Joni Dufour).

On Campus

Bringing the world’s best minds to McGill

Since 1954, an annual lecture series at McGill has brought some of the sharpest thinkers on the planet to the University.

Story by Kathryn Gamboa

August 2021

Since 1954, an annual lecture series at McGill has brought some of the sharpest thinkers on the planet to the University.

McGill’s Beatty Lecturers have included literary icons like Saul Bellow and Margaret Atwood, Nobel Peace Prize winners like Wangari Maathai and Shirin Ebadi, and academic heavyweights like Vartan Gregorian and Richard Dawkins.

This year’s Beatty Lecturer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to U.S. president Joe Biden and a scientist who played key roles in both the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the current COVID 19 pandemic, carries on in that tradition.

“From its founding, the Beatty Lecture has aimed to bring world-renowned intellectuals to McGill,” says Brett Hooton, BA’02, MA’05. Hooton, director of communications and operations for Research and Innovation (R+I) at McGill, is the co-editor of a new book, With the World to Choose From, that showcases some of the remarkable Beatty presentations that McGill audiences have enjoyed over the years.

“All the lectures in this [anthology] represent a snapshot of a particular moment in time, and each lecture has moments that educate or enlighten after all these years,” says Hooton. “We hope that the anthology reaffirms for readers the enduring power of ideas.”

With the World to Choose From, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, includes 15 Beatty Lectures delivered by the likes of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, author and social commentator Roxane Gay, and McGill’s own internationally acclaimed emeritus professor of philosophy Charles Taylor, BA’52.

“Our goal was to create an anthology that would pay tribute to the Beatty’s past seven decades as a signature event [for McGill] and as one of Canada’s longest-running lecture series,” says Robin Koning, one of the book’s co-editors, and a digital marketing and outreach associate with R+I.

The creation of the lecture series was sparked by a $100,000 gift to the University in 1952 from Henry Beatty, in memory of his brother Edward. As the longtime president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Edward Beatty was a national figure. He also played a crucial role in McGill’s history, serving as the chair of the University’s board of governors and then as McGill’s chancellor.

“In the 1950s, invited lecturers often travelled by steamship, and stayed in Montreal and on campus for up to a month,” says Meaghan Thurston, BA’05, senior communications officer with R+I and one of the co-editors of With the World to Choose.

The book’s title harkens back to the lectures’ early days, when McGill principal F. Cyril James played a central role in selecting the speakers, along with David L. Thomson, dean of graduate studies and research, and H. Noel Fieldhouse, dean of arts and science.

“The title of the anthology comes from a document that I found in the McGill University Archives, written by Dean Thomson to Principal James, which states, ‘With the world to choose from, it becomes difficult to select for the Beatty Lectureship,’” says Koning.

“The Beatty Lectures launched to tremendous fanfare in 1954,” adds Koning. “The University invited Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s first vice-president, to deliver the inaugural lecture. People purchased so many tickets in advance that the lecture was moved from Redpath Hall and into the much larger Currie Gymnasium. Over 3,000 McGillians and Montrealers attended. Fast forward seven decades and the Beatty Lecture still generates excitement on campus and sold-out crowds.”

For this year’s Beatty Lecture, R+I decided to solicit suggestions from the McGill community via the What’s New @McGill e-newsletter. “The most requested name from that poll was Dr. Anthony Fauci,” says Koning. Fauci will present the 2021 Beatty Lecture virtually on October 1st. “We were thrilled that Dr. Fauci accepted the invitation,” says Thurston.

In putting together the book, Thurston says, “We decided to feature two to three lectures per decade, spanning a range of topics, to reflect the diversity of lecturers.” But the anthology’s co-editors faced some challenges in that regard.

“Unfortunately, over the years, audio or video recordings of the lectures or the paper transcripts were lost. In fact, only a handful of lecture recordings exist from the late 1980s to early 2000s,” says Koning.

The Beatty Digital Archive project, launched a few years ago and led by Koning, has been playing a vital role in preserving materials related to the lecture series. “Thanks to the Digital Archive project, we had a substantial collection of digitized audiovisual recordings and transcripts to choose from,” says Koning.

The anthology editors first met with McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2018 to discuss possibilities for bringing some of the Beatty lectures to print. “During the meeting, the idea of producing an anthology of lectures was born,” recalls Thurston. Releasing the book during McGill’s Bicentennial felt like a natural move.

Koning says that the lectures included in the book continue to be timely today.

“The anthology features a lecture delivered in 1975 by one of the most distinguished violinists of the twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin, on the process of creation; a lecture delivered 50 years ago by peace activist and journalist Peter Ritchie Calder warning about the devastating effects of climate change; a lecture delivered by astronomer Fred Hoyle in 1975 exploring the possibility of intelligent life in the universe; and a lecture delivered in 1997 by Cicely Saunders on the importance of the modern palliative care movement that she pioneered.”

The editors commissioned new introductions for each of the lectures “written by leading academics and luminaries in their own right,” says Koning. “These prefaces provide the reader with biographical and contextual information. For example, the renowned violinist Nora Chastain introduces the lecture delivered by her mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, and Montreal tech startup CEO Dax Dasilva introduces Muhammud Yunus’s lecture.”

When asked if she has a favourite among the lectures that appear in With the World to Choose From, Koning points to Saunders. “In the lecture, she speaks straight from the heart, and very candidly and personally on a subject that we typically shy away from discussing, death.”

Thurston, who joined the organizing team for the Beatty Lectures in 2014, has a few favourites.

“I am particularly fond of Han Suyin’s 1968 lecture, ‘Asia Today: Revolutionary Change in the Twentieth Century,’ as it showcases a form of deliberative oratory rarely delivered in this day.”

She also cites a more recent lecture in the anthology, Roxane Gay’s 2018 presentation, ‘Difficult Women, Bad Feminists and Unruly Bodies.’ “I will always remember peeking outside on the cold October night to see the line for Roxane Gay’s Beatty Lecture snake around the block from Pollack Hall to Boulevard Robert Bourassa.”

The World to Choose From is available through Amazon, Indigo, McGill-Queen’s University Press and Le James Bookstore. 

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