Despite his lack of practical farm expertise, William Johnston (1848-1885) was the "founder" of the Ontario Agricultural College and its Principal from 1876-1879. It was his vision that led to the creation of a three-year degree program, affiliated with the University of Toronto, which began in 1887 and continued until 1964. Johnston Hall, built in 1932 as a student residence and administrative offices, is now one of the University's most recognized buildings.
Johnston Hall's stone tower is the University of Guelph's best-known landmark, and its spacious front lawn one of the most loved spots on campus. Administrative offices fill the lower floor, while 315 students live on the top three floors in large double and triple rooms. Built in 1932, Johnston Hall's traditional architecture and its spacious tower lounge make it a favorite with many students.
William Johnston 1848-1885
Rector and Acting Principal, Ontario School of Agriculture, 1874-1876
Principal, Ontario School of Agriculture, 1876-1879
William Johnston was born in Lockerbie, Scotland, and immigrated to Cobourg, Ontario, with his family when he was three. He studied at Victoria College in Toronto and was teaching in Northumberland County by the age of 15. Illness forced Johnston to return to Scotland in 1870, but once recovered, he began his studies in mental and moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. He returned to Canada in 1872 and completed his degree at the University of Toronto in 1874.
That same year, Johnston was appointed rector at the Ontario School of Agriculture as it opened its doors to the first class of students. The school’s first principal had just resigned, and the second was often unavailable because of trips abroad or illness, making it necessary for Johnston to assume these duties. In 1876, he was officially appointed the third principal.
Despite his lack of practical farm experience, Johnston was a strong advocate of agriculture education. In only a few years, he was able to repair strained relationships between staff and students, regain farmer support and restore the reputation of the school. The first initiatives in rural outreach to transfer the benefits of scientific study into practical applications occurred during his tenure. Johnston’s long-term vision for a three-year degree program affiliated with the University of Toronto was finally realized in 1887, and that program continued until 1964.
Johnston’s philosophies would drive the development of the Ontario Agricultural College as we know it today. He can deservedly be called the “founder” of the Ontario Agricultural College.
The plaque is located in the main foyer of Johnston Hall.