Army Tents

Humble Beginnings

As much of the world turns its attention to the interlocking political alliances and storm clouds slowly gathering over Europe, in British Columbia there is a growing urgency to define a vision for higher education and create a proud and proper provincial university.

In 1908, The University Act is passed and The University of British Columbia is incorporated. In 1913, Frank F. Wesbrook is appointed the university’s first president and work begins on the first academic building (Science) on the huge and distant Point Grey site.

Perched on the edge of the Pacific, amid forests and fields of Vancouver’s west side and on the unceded ancestral territory of the Musqueam people, plans for the campus are ambitious but until the walls are up, UBC must make do with the inadequate Fairview facility in Vancouver. Previously occupied by McGill University College, it consists of four cramped buildings near the Vancouver General Hospital.

Undeterred and eager, Dr. Henry Esson Young, then Minister of Education, and Dr. Wesbrook chose the young university’s motto: Tuum Est or in Latin ‘It is Yours’. Wesbrook emphatically links the motto to his vision that the new university be open and inclusive to all people:

“The people’s University must meet all the needs of all the people. We must therefore proceed with care to the erection of those Workshops where we may design and fashion the tools needed in the building of a nation and from which we can survey and lay out paths of enlightenment, tunnel the mountains of ignorance and bridge the chasms of incompetence.”


“The people’s University must meet all the needs of all the people. We must therefore proceed with care to the erection of those Workshops where we may design and fashion the tools needed in the building of a nation and from which we can survey and lay out paths of enlightenment, tunnel the mountains of ignorance and bridge the chasms of incompetence.”

Frank F. Wesbrook
President

Meanwhile, in the city of Sarajevo, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. European alliances scramble and take sides, conflict escalates and the Great War descends on the world. The outbreak of war halts the ambitious plans for building the Point Grey campus but it does not alter the drive of UBC to establish its roots and create a place for higher education in the province of British Columbia.

The university opens its doors on September 30, 1915. Despite the tight spaces, the energy and ambitions of a fledgling staff and a handful of students is bright. Soon however, faculty and students are drawn away from the lecture halls to enlist in the global battle that will take them into the chaotic, muddy trenches of Europe to fight for king and country.

A compassionate man, President Wesbrook takes particular interest in the ‘UBC family’ fighting on the front lines and writes personal letters to them to build morale and offer hope. Meanwhile, the promise of a quick and glorious war that would see soldiers in the armies of the Central Powers and the Allies be ‘home before Christmas’, turns into an exhausting, four-year nightmare.

On the home front, UBC faculty are given leaves of absence to do wartime research. Those in the classrooms pitch in to teach vocational classes, volunteer in food production and help with training for the Canadian Officer Training Corps (COTC).

Sadly, many of Wesbrook’s dreams to build the “Cambridge of the Pacific” are not realized during his time. Wesbrook passes away in 1918, just before the Armistice is declared between Germany and the Allies and the overly punitive Treaty of Versailles is signed.

UBC is quick to respond to and support the post-war effort, offering free, non-credit, no exams necessary education to returning veterans and ‘non-university men and women’ through vocational training in agriculture, mining, forestry and engineering.

Dr. Leonard S. Klinck is the first academic appointment at the new university and leads one of the three founding faculties as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, the other two being Arts and Science, and Applied Science. In 1919, Dr. L.S. Klinck steps in as UBC’s new president.

As Europe begins to rebuild, North American industry and economies resume their peacetime footings. UBC is now poised to grow and its students, with Tuum Est in their hearts, begin to make the university ‘theirs’ in unforgettable ways.

1915–1919: Timeline

Explore the era

  • A group of Canadian Officer Training Corps officers, including President Frank Wesbrook, in their uniforms in 1915.

  • A Canadian recruitment poster for the First World War, 1918.

  • A letter to President Frank Wesbrook from a UBC student soldier on the front during the First World War.

  • Students in a chemistry lab at the Fairview campus, UBC’s first campus location.

  • UBC students attend an arts lecture at the Fairview campus, 1919.

President Wesbrook

“It is more important that we appreciate our responsibilities for the heritage which has been given us. We must not be intoxicated by the realization of nature’s prodigality. In the exuberance of our youth, we must not sow national wild oats for our children and our children’s children to reap.”

Frank F. Wesbrook
President, 1913–1918

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