Tag Archives: This Day In History

August 21st – The Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre

The Mona Lisa goes missing from the Louvre in 1911!

The Mona Lisa goes missing from the Louvre in 1911!

On this day in 1911, the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda in Italian or La Joconde in French) by Leonardo da Vinci was stolen from the Louvre in Paris, France. Described as the “greatest art theft of the twentieth-century,” the Mona Lisa remained missing for two years before it was discovered in Florence, Italy in the hands of its thief, Vincenzo Peruggia.

On August 21st, 1911, Louis Béroud, an amateur walked into the Louvre, and went to the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa was displayed. When he arrived in the room he found that where the Mona Lisa should have hung, only four iron pegs remained. The Mona Lisa, one of the most famous works of art in the world, was stolen. Theories abounded as to the thief of the Mona Lisa. The French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who previously advocated burning the painting, was immediately implicated and arrested. Apollinaire accused Pablo Picasso of the theft after being thrown in jail; both were later acquitted however. Another rumour spread that blamed the theft on the German nationalists, in order to humiliate the French, defeated by the Germans in war a little of forty years prior.

It turned out it was not German nationalism, but Italian nationalism that proved the true culprit of the theft of the Mona Lisa. Over two years after the theft, in November 1913, a Florentine art dealer by the name of Alfred Geri received a letter from someone named “Leonardo” who offered to give the Mona Lisa to him in exchange for a reward. Geri then went to Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, for advice on how to proceed. After taking the Mona Lisa for “safekeeping”, Geri and Poggi informed the Florentine police who then promptly arrested Vincenzo Peruggia as the thief of the Mona Lisa. In August 1911, Peruggia was employed at the Louvre, and on the 21st, lifted the Mona Lisa when the Salon Carré was empty. He then hid in a broom closet in the Louvre till the next day, where he left the Louvre with the Mona Lisa under an artist’s smock that he was wearing. As for his motive, Peruggia believed that the Mona Lisa was one of the greatest works by one of the greatest Italian artists. Consequently, Peruggia believed that the Mona Lisa should be exhibited in an Italian museum, not the foreign, Parisian Louvre.

Peruggia went on to serve six months jail time for his crime, however he was praised all over Italy. Peruggia later on served in the Italian army during the First World War, The Mona Lisa was displayed all over Italy and then returned back to Louvre by the end of 1913. Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa was the only theft of the painting in its history, however it has been at risk of damage since 1911. In 1956, the Mona Lisa survived having acid and a rock thrown at it. Luckily the 1956 attacks were minor enough that restoration of the Mona Lisa was possible. Afterwards, a bulletproof glass was put in place to protect the painting. This bulletproof glass proved invaluable in deterring red paint being thrown at the Mona Lisa in 1974 and a tea mug projectile in 2009. Mona Lisa‘s famous smile and gaze remains available for all to see at the Louvre, after being stolen and recovered almost one hundred years ago.

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August 15th – Detroit is surrendered to General Isaac Brock during the War of 1812

American General William Hull (in blue) surrenders his sword and Detroit to British General Isaac Brock (in red) on August 16th, 1812. Tecumseh looks on, in the background.

American General William Hull (in blue) surrenders his sword and Detroit to British General Isaac Brock (in red) on August 16th, 1812. Tecumseh looks on, in the background to the left.

I apologize for the rather lengthy hiatus between now and my last post. The summer I have been busy with finishing up my thesis and starting medical school, so I have not been able to blog as much as I hoped. I have a bit of a break before things start back up, and hope to get back to posting the occasional post! Enjoy!

On this day in 1812, Detroit was surrendered to British general Isaac Brock during the War of 1812. At that time, Detroit was a strategically important fortress town on the American/Canadian border. Following the American declaration of war on Britain (and by extension, her colony of British North America), skirmishes were fought between American militia and British regulars (which included their Upper Canadian and Native American allies) along the border. General William Hull, the commander of American forces in the Michigan Territory, began plans for an invasion into Upper Canada (the land that now constitutes much of Southern Ontario). The American invasion of Upper Canada from Michigan began on July 12th, 1812. Hull and his forces quickly returned back to Michigan across the Detroit River soon after however, upon learning of the British capture of Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island (north of Detroit). Faced with Native American forces (around 600 strong), led by Tecumseh, threatening his position from the rear, Hull and his forces (roughly 2500 in number) fortified their position, awaiting the upcoming attack on Detroit.

On the British side, things were not looking well. The British only had roughly 300 professional soldiers in the Detroit-Amherstburg (near present-day Windsor, Ontario) area, far outnumbered by the Americans. 400 Canadian militia are recruited by Brock to fight, however few have substantive combat experience. In order to give the appearance of a larger, stronger fighting force to the Americans, Brock dresses the Canadian militia in the redcoats of the British Army. This wardrobe adjustment had a dramatic effect on the upcoming battle.

On August 16th, 1812, British soldiers along with their Canadian allies dressed in red marched on Detroit. The British/Canadian forces still remained severely outnumbered by the Americans, however, with Tecumseh’s Native forces also joining the attack, the British side appeared formidable. In one of the grandest bluffs in military history, General Brock sent a message to General Hull, stating:
“The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences.”

Hull, afraid of the result a Native attack would have on Detroit and its inhabitants, and the British artillery bombardment upon the fort, surrendered Detroit without a fight. General Brock and Tecumseh won the Battle of Detroit without firing a shot, leaving the British with virtual control of the Michigan Territory, and Upper Canada’s western flank protected.

The stunning victory at Detroit galvanized Canadian support for the war, who initially were tepid in their enthusiasm for fighting against the Americans. Native American people were also inspired by the American defeat at Detroit, causing many Native Americans to take up arms against American outposts throughout the Northwest (today’s Midwest). Tecumseh continued to lead a confederacy of Native American tribes during the war, however was killed at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. General Isaac Brock was not able to celebrate for long, as he had to rush back towards the Niagara peninsula to defend Upper Canada from attack originating from New York state. On October 13th, 1812, General Brock died at the Battle of Queenston Heights. William Hull was court-martialed and sentenced to death for the disaster at Detroit, however the sentence was lightened to resignation from the army on order of President Madison, in recognition of Hull’s efforts during the American Revolution. Following his resignation, Hull settled in Newton, Massachusetts spending the rest of his life writing his memoirs in an attempt to exonerate himself of the failure at Detroit.

The following video is a short clip on YouTube summarizing the events of the battle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwM4SZX_TKM.

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May 3rd – “In Flanders Fields”, by John McCrae, is written

A memorial located outside John McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario. The memorial features John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields", with two Canadian-style remembrance poppies laid on top.

A memorial located outside John McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario. The memorial features John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” poem, with two Canadian-style remembrance poppies laid on top. Lest we forget.

On this day in 1915, John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in the battlefields of Belgium during the First World War, wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”. One of the most popular and often-quoted poems from the First World War, “In Flanders Fields” invocation of the poppies growing over the graves of fallen soldiers has been adopted by Commonwealth countries through the “remembrance poppy” as a symbol of those soldiers who have died in conflict. Almost one hundred years after the poem was first written, “In Flanders Fields” is taught in classrooms throughout the Commonwealth, and in particular, Canada, John McCrae’s native land.

Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872, John McCrae wrote poetry throughout his lifetime, alongside his medical work. Once the First World War began in the summer of 1914, McCrae quickly enlisted to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Despite McCrae’s medical training and expertise, he opted to join a fighting unit instead of the medical corps, and served as both a gunner and a medical officer. McCrae fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans first used poison gas on the battlefield. For seventeen days, the Canadians were able to hold their position against the German assault, however conditions were nightmarish and casualties high. Amongst those that were killed in the battle was Alexis Helmer, a former student and close friend of McCrae’s. After performing the burial service of his friend, the next day, May 3rd 1915, McCrae sat down on the back of an ambulance, and noting how quickly the poppies grew over the graves of his fallen comrades, wrote the following poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

It would be months before McCrae’s poem became published. On December 8th 1915, McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was published in Punch magazine. It became an instant hit. McCrae’s poem soon became republished around the globe, and translated in several languages, and utilized to bolster support for the war effort in Europe. The words of “In Flanders Fields” were used to sell war bonds and promote soldier recruitment drives throughout the Allied countries.

Later in the war, McCrae was transferred out of his fighting unit (much to his chagrin) to a military hospital, and rose to the rank of colonel by 1918. On January 13th 1918, McCrae caught a case of pneumonia, and in light of the years of stress that war had placed on his body, fell ill with cerebral meningitis later on. On January 28th 1918, John McCrae passed away at a military hospital in Wimereux, France, where he was buried with full military honours.

The most well-known legacy of “In Flanders Fields” are the remembrance poppies worn throughout the Commonwealth during the weeks leading up to Remembrance/Armistice Day. First introduced by the American Legion in 1920, the Remembrance Poppy was then shortly adopted by the Royal British Legion with support from Field Marshall Douglas Haig. From there, the Remembrance Poppy was introduced throughout the Empire. Today, Legions associations are actively involved with the production and sale of poppies during the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, with funds going to support veterans and their families.

Here is a link to a Heritage Minute clip that was released by the Canadian government to commemorate John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”: https://www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/john-mccrae.

 

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March 31st – The Eiffel Tower is opened

The Eiffel Tower, in midst of construction.

The Eiffel Tower, in midst of construction.

On this day in 1889, 125 years ago, the Eiffel Tower opened. One of the most well-known landmarks worldwide, the Eiffel Tower has come to symbolize the city of Paris and France, and is the most visited paid monument in the world (almost 7 million visitors each year). For almost 40 years after its opening, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world, eclipsed by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930.

Interestingly, the Eiffel Tower was never meant to be a permanent fixture in the cityscape of Paris. In honour of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution (1789), the city of Paris decided to hold an international exposition and the construction of a monument on the Champ-de-Mars in central Paris. The city decided on Gustav Eiffel’s design, a 984 feet tall open-lattice iron-wrought tower that would be the tallest structure in the world. Eiffel was a famed architect who had only three years ago designed the framework of the Statue of Liberty.

In general, Parisians were skeptical of the design of the Eiffel Tower on the city. The French arts establishment published the following in Le Temps:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal”

Regardless, work on the tower began on January 28th, 1887. The construction of the tower featured an iron framework supported by four masonry piers, from which four columns arose to form a single vertical tower. Three platforms exist in the Eiffel Tower, each with an observation deck. Elevators ascend up the piers along a curve, which were not completed until after the tower’s opening. On March 31st, 1889, Gustav Eiffel climbed all the tower’s stairs to reach the top of the tower, where he raised the French tricolour, with fireworks set off from the second platform, and a 21 cannon salute at ground level. Later on in May, the International Exposition opened, exposing the Eiffel Tower to the world at large. Interestingly, the city of Paris had only granted the Eiffel Tower a 20 year lease on the land it was on, and consequently in 1909 was subject for demolition. However, the Eiffel Tower proved to be highly valuable as an antenna for radio transmission, and was therefore preserved. Bonne fête Tour de Eiffel!

Here is the official site for the Eiffel Tower, with information for visiting: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/en.html.

And here are some interesting facts concerning the Eiffel Tower:

  • There are 5 billion lights on the Eiffel Tower.
  • The French nickname for the tower is La Dame de Fer, the Iron Lady (how Thatcherite!)
  • Gustav Eiffel installed a meteorological laboratory on the third floor of the tower, which was available for scientists to use for studying anything from gravity to electricity.
  • In order to give the appearance of an uniform colour on the tower, paint is used in a graduated manner to counteract the effect of atmospheric perspective. Consequently, the bottom of the tower is actually painted lighter than the top. The Eiffel Tower is covered with 60 tonnes of paint every seven years to protect against corrosive forces.
  • The names of 72 French scientists are inscribed on the exterior of the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. Scientists honoured include Georges Cuvier, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Louis Le Chatelier, Léon Foucault, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, and Louis Daguerre.
  • In February 4th, 1912, the Austrian tailor Franz Reichelt tested his wearable parachute design by jumping from the Eiffel Tower to deploy the suit. Infamously, and tragically, Reichelt was proven wrong, when his parachute failed to deploy upon jumping from the tower, sending him crashing to the floor. Footage was taken of his perilous jump live, and can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBN3xfGrx_U.
  • In 1914, a radio transmitter located on the Eiffel Tower jammed German radio communications, which served to hinder the German advance on Paris. In essence, the Eiffel Tower contributed to the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne.
  • In 1940, just before France fell to Nazi Germany, the lift cables for the Eiffel Tower’s elevators were cut by the French, to prevent the occupying German forces and Hitler from using them to enjoy the city view of Paris. When Hitler went to visit Paris after the Fall of France, der Fuhrer chose to stay on the ground.
  • Almost 30 replicas of the Eiffel Tower have been built around the world.
  • One of the Hollywood clichés is that in any movie featuring Paris, you are able to see the Eiffel Tower out the window. In reality, city zoning restrictions limit the height of most buildings in Paris to only seven stories, therefore only a few taller buildings exist that would allow for a clear view of the Eiffel Tower.

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March 26th – Jonas Salk announces his polio vaccine

Jonas Salk in his laboratory, inoculating a patient against polio.

Jonas Salk in his laboratory, inoculating a patient against polio.

On this day in 1953, Jonas Salk announced to the world that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes polio. A highly infectious disease, especially to children, the polio virus attacks the nervous system of victims, causing various degrees of paralysis. Major polio epidemics started appearing in the late nineteenth century in both Europe and North America, and soon enough, became one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the twentieth century. By 1952, a year before Salk’s announcement, polio was killing the most children over any other communicable disease. Until Salk’s vaccine was released, there was no viable cure or vaccine to combat polio. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s well-known affliction with polio raised national consciousness of the disease, and the massive fundraising campaigns of the March of Dimes Foundation, the search for a vaccine for polio was underway.

Jonas Salk began his scientific work on viruses in the 1930s while a medical student at New York University (NYU). During the Second World War, Salk assisted in developing flu vaccines for overseas soldiers. By 1948, Salk’s experience as a virologist allowed him to receive a grant at the University of Pittsburgh to study the polio virus and come up with a potential vaccine to the virus. In 1950, Salk had come up with an early version of his polio vaccine, however was unable to come forward to the public about it without testing its efficacy. Consequently, Salk conducted human trials of his vaccine on former polio patients and on himself and his family, and found that the vaccine worked. On March 26th, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show that he found a vaccine to prevent polio and would be holding field trials of the vaccine across America.

Starting in 1954, clinical field trials of the vaccine started throughout America, with an estimated two million American school children involved. Interestingly, a 1954 Gallup Poll showed that more Americans knew about these field trials than they knew the first name of the current President of the United States (that is Dwight, mind you). In 1955, Salk concluded that the vaccine was safe and effective, and a nationwide inoculation campaign was initiated. Similar inoculation campaigns were started throughout the world, drastically reducing the number of polio cases worldwide. Building on Salk’s work and success, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine to polio, greatly enhancing the ease of distribution of the vaccine. In honour of his work on the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the highest civilian award in the United States. Salk died in La Jolla, California in 1995. Thanks to Salk and his vaccine, polio was almost globally eradicated in the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the World Health Organization has reported that a few cases of polio have appeared in Syria in 2013, no doubt influenced by the inability to vaccinate children during Syrian Civil War.

 

 

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March 25th – Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Tragedy occurs in New York City

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

On this day in 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, and the building is currently designated a National Historic Landmark (click here to see where the building is located). In total, 146 lives were lost in the tragedy, either from the fire itself, smoke inhalation, or falling/jumping to their deaths. The vast majority of the victims were female Jewish or Italian immigrants, aged as young as 14 years of age. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire opened Americans’ eyes to the unsafe conditions of many of the country’s workplaces, leading to improved factory safety regulations and better conditions for factory workers.

Hundreds of shirtwaist (a blouse that resembled a man’s shirt) factories existed in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest of the factories, employing over 500 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants to America. Work conditions at the factory were extreme, despite the immense profits that factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris brought in. Women (and children) worked 9 hours a day on weekdays and 7 hours on Saturdays, making only $7-12 a week. Workers at the Triangle Factory had few breaks at work, were followed to the bathroom and were rushed back to work, and worked in overcrowded environments. Important to this story, few safety regulations existed in the factory: cotton textile scraps (flammable of course) littered the factory floor, no sprinkler system was installed, and the fire escape ladder was shoddy and only reached down to the second floor. As well, the factory owners Blanck and Harris were afraid that their workers would steal equipment or merchandise from the factory floor. Consequently, Blanck and Harris mandated that one of the two doors to the factory be locked while the factory was running, so that the workers would have to take a specific exit while the factory was closing to be searched for stolen products. This single exit was partitioned to allow only one worker at a time to leavefor inspection. Even at this time, Blanck and Harris’ policy of locking a door was against fire regulations in New York City.

At 4:40 pm on Saturday March 25th, 1911, right before the factory was closing for the day, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While the official cause of the fire has never been determined, fire officials at the time believed a lit cigarette ignited a trash bin full of cotton scraps next to a worker’s station. As alluded to earlier, cotton is quite flammable, and soon enough, the entire cotton-covered floor was up in flames, spreading up to the floors above. Efforts were made to try to extinguish the fire on the floor using a fire hose in the factory, however the hose had not been properly inspected and proved completely useless as little water pressure existed. The only course of action left for the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was to escape.

Tragically the options were limited for the workers trying to get out. As one of the two doors was locked, workers scrambled towards the other spatially-limiting door, often trampling and pushing others aside to get to the exit quickly. Other workers sought exodus through the passenger elevators, which ran up and down the building, trying to get as many workers out from the factory as possible. Some of the workers on the tenth floor were able to get to the roof of the building, where law students at nearby NYU (New York University) threw ladders over from adjacent buildings to get people out. Some workers took the fire escape ladder, which was so flimsy that, when people went to climb down the ladder, the ladder simply fell off the building, sending workers plummeting to their deaths. More drastic, and often ill-fated, attempts were made to leave the factory. Some workers tried to slide down elevator cables, ending up losing their grip and fatally falling. Sadly, many would jump out of the windows in a last-ditch attempt to escape the fire. Despite the arrival of the New York Fire Department, their ladders could only reach the 6th floor, and their fire nets proved too weak to catch the fall of workers. By this time, many onlookers had come and stood outside of the Asch Building, looking on in horror at the tragedy that lay in front of them. William Gunn Shepard, an eyewitness at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire commented on those jumping out from the windows: “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.”

The bodies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were recovered and taken to Charities Pier (also known as Misery Lane), for identification by friends and loved ones. The official death toll was 146, 123 women and 23 men. The victims were interned in sixteen different cemeteries. Interestingly, six victims of the fire remaining unidentified until 2011, 100 years after the fire occurred. While these six victims were originally buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, a grave marker has now been placed with the identities of the victims.

Following the tragedy, Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter for their responsibility in the deaths resulting from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The trial lasted for three weeks, and ultimately Blanck and Harris were acquitted. The two factory owners were acquitted after the prosecution failed to definitely conclude that the door was locked and that the owners knew this, but also, that fewer people would have died had the doors been unlocked. On a positive note however, a commission was put in place after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to look into the conditions of factories throughout New York City. The findings of the commission concluded that many factories lacked many basic safety considerations, such as sprinklers, fire walls, fire doors. In the years after the tragedy, legislation was passed at the state and federal levels to strengthen workplace safety laws and regulations, improving the labour environment of workers throughout the country.

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March 7th – The University of Western Ontario is founded

Here is a picture of Western's campus back in 1933. From this picture, you can see the J.W. Little Football Stadium (now the present site of the South Valley Building). University College (then known as the Arts building) and the Natural Sciences Building (now known as the Physics and Astronomy Building) can be seen in the background.

Here is a picture of Western’s campus back in 1933. From this picture, you can see the J.W. Little Football Stadium (now the present site of the South Valley Building). University College (then known as the Arts building) and the Natural Sciences Building (now known as the Physics and Astronomy Building) can be seen in the background.

On this day in 1878, the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, my alma mater, was founded. With 12 faculties and professional schools, and three affiliated university colleges (Huron University College, Brescia University College, which is Canada’s only female university-level college, and King’s University College), the University of Western Ontario, Western for short, has approximately 30000 currently enrolled undergraduate students and 5300 graduate students from 107 countries around the world. Western is nationally and internationally well recognized as one of Canada’s prestigious and illustrious institutions.

Western’s founder, Bishop Isaac Hellmuth was born in Poland in 1819 and educated at the University of Breslau (present-day University of Wrocław). While Hellmuth was originally Jewish in faith, discussions with theologians at Breslau made Hellmuth question his faith, and upon moving to England in 1842, Hellmuth converted to Anglicanism. In 1844, he entered the ministry, and was then sent to the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Following some time spent as a professor of Hebrew and rabbinical literature at Bishop’s University (in Lennoxville, Quebec), Hellmuth found himself in London, Ontario.

Once in London, Hellmuth recognized the need for an institution to educate and train clergy in the area. In 1861, Hellmuth set off for England to raise funds to establish this clerical training institution in London. After enough funds had been gathered, in 1863, Hellmuth founded Huron College, which remains to this day as one of Western’s affiliate colleges. In 1871, Hellmuth became the Bishop of the Diocese of Huron, and with his newfound clout, began pushing the provincial government for the establishment of a university in London, Ontario. Hellmuth would invest much of his own money to the procurement of a charter for the new school. Though legislation for the creation of an university in London met stiff resistance in provincial parliament, in 1878 a charter for Western was finally authorized, undoubtedly aided by the fact that Hellmuth was married to the sister-in-law of the Minister of Education, as well as support from Premier Oliver Mowat.

Beautiful picture of University College (Arts Building) and the Lawson Memorial Library (now known as Lawson Hall, home to the Department of History) in 1940.

Beautiful picture of University College (Arts Building) and the Lawson Memorial Library (now known as Lawson Hall, home to Western’s Department of History) in 1940.

On March 7th, 1878, ‘The Western University of London Ontario” was founded. Three years later, Western opened its doors to students for the first time, with degrees in four faculties: Arts, Divinity, Law, and Medicine. At this time, Western was still a religiously affiliated institution, and it was clergy members that served as faculty for the school, with Bishops of Huron serving as Western’s first chancellors. Only in 1908 did the school become non-denominational and secularized. In 1923, the university was officially renamed “The University of Western Ontario”. Contrary to what many current students and alumni believe, that name is still the institution’s official name; while in 2012 the university re-branded itself as “Western University”, that epithet is only the school’s marketing name and not its official legal name.

Here are some of the notable alumni/faculty to have passed through Western’s doors:

  • Sir Frederick Banting – Nobel laureate in Medicine, for co-discovering insulin
  • Roberta Bondar – first female Canadian astronaut
  • Margaret Chan – director-general of the World Health Organization
  • David Furnish – filmmaker and civil partner of Sir Elton John
  • Dr. Chil-Yong Kang – developer of an HIV/AIDS vaccine currently undergoing clinical trials
  • Silken Laumann – Canadian champion rower, Olympic medalist
  • Alice Munro – author, Nobel Laureate in Literature for “mastery of the contemporary short story”
  • Kevin Newman – previous anchor of Global National
  • Kevin O’Leary – chairman of O’Leary Funds, dragon and shark on CBC’s Dragons Den and ABC’s Shark Tank respectively
  • Michael Ondaatje – poet, novelist of The English Patient, which was adapted into multiple Academy Award-winning film of the same name
  • Adrian Owen – neuroscientist, the Brain and Mind Institute
  • John Robarts – 17th Premier of Ontario
  • Alan Thicke – actor in Growing Pains and father to Robin Thicke
  • Paul Wells – columnist and journalist for Maclean’s Magazine

So on this Founder’s Day fellow Mustangs, wear purple and white, and let us take pride in our school’s past and the exciting future that is yet to come. Happy 136th birthday Western! Go ‘Stangs go!

Here is a video released by Western for this year’s Founder’s Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWuaMNbZfI8

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March 6th – The city of Toronto is incorporated

Front Street in 1804. Today, the CN Tower, the Fairmont Royal York, and Union Station are found on modern-day Toronto. While Front Street was right next to Lake Ontario back in 1804, following late 19th and early 20th century land reclamation, the lake shore is now 800 metres south of Front Street.

Front Street, Toronto in 1804. The CN Tower, the Fairmont Royal York, and Union Station are found on modern-day Front Street. While Front Street was right next to Lake Ontario back in 1804, following late 19th and early 20th century land reclamations, the lake shore is now almost 800 metres south of Front Street.

On this day in 1834, 180 years ago, the city of Toronto was incorporated. Due to its key position on Lake Ontario and its access to many rivers (such as the Humber, Don, and Rouge), Toronto was a highly influential and important settlement throughout history and to this day. This post will largely cover Toronto’s history (albeit succinctly) up to the city’s incorporation.

Prior to English settlement, the area made up of present-day Toronto was inhabited by various First Nations peoples, including the Neutral, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Wendat, and Mississauga (from which the Toronto suburb is named after) nations. By the mid-1750s, the French had began exploring the northern shore of Lake Ontario where Toronto is today located. The French would build a trading post in this area name Fort Rouillé, located around Exhibition Place (where the Canadian National Exhibition, or The Ex is held every August) in 1750. By the 1760s however, the French abandoned Fort Rouillé after their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War.

It would be another war that would greatly influence Toronto’s history pre-incorporation. During the American Revolutionary War, Loyalists (roughly, those American colonists loyal to the British crown and did not want to be part of America) from the Thirteen Colonies settled in large numbers in the lands constituting modern-day Toronto. In 1787, the British negotiated the purchase of the lands constituting Toronto (almost a quarter million acres) from the Mississaugas of New Credit. Two years later, John Graves Simcoe declared this area to be known as “York”, functioning as the capital of Upper Canada (modern-day Southern Ontario, contrast with Lower Canada being the area of the province of Quebec situated along the St. Lawrence River).

Previously, Newark (mind you, not the one in New Jersey, but on the Niagara Peninsula, present day Niagara-on-the-Lake) was the capital of Upper Canada, but due to the threat of an American attack, York became the colony’s new capital. At the time, York was largely a bay formed by the Toronto Islands, with Fort York defended the settlement from attack. Simcoe also ordered the construction of military service roads to allow easy communication between York and Kingston, and York and Newark. Kingston Road (still exists in some form today) formed the eastern route out of Toronto, Dundas Street the western route (also exists in some form today, moving all the way through southwestern Ontario, through London and towards Windsor), and Yonge Street northwards to Lake Simcoe. Yonge Street still exists to this day; at almost 1896 km in length (counting the portion of the street known as Highway 11), it was popularly known as ‘the longest street in the world’.

Yet another war would influence Toronto’s history in its early days. In 1813 during the War of 1812 (I know, confusing), York was attacked and burned by invading American forces. Despite the presence of Fort York, the garrison was lightly manned, therefore unable to adequately repulse the Americans. Following this defeat, a stronger fort was constructed west of the fort’s original position, easily turning back the Americans after another attack in 1814. While originally on the city’s coast, this newer fort (that which exists to this day) is now hundreds of meters inland, due to land reclamation.

After York’s “baptism by fire” during the War of 1812, it was decided to further elevate the status of this important community. On March 6th, 1834, the town of York was incorporated, changing its name to Toronto to distinguish it from New York City, as well as remove its negative image as ‘dirty little York’ by the local inhabitants. Toronto is derived from the original Mohawk name for the area, tkaronto, meaning ‘where there are trees standing in the water’. William Lyon Mackenzie would be Toronto’s first mayor. It was Toronto’s first mayor that was grandfather to William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister through the Great Depression and the Second World War (and also the prime minister featured on the Canadian fifty dollar bill). Happy 180th birthday Toronto!

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February 27th – The Reichstag is set on fire

Firemen race to put out the fire at the Reichstag, February 27th, 1933.

Firemen race to put out the fire at the Reichstag, February 27th, 1933.

On this day in 1933, the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament in Berlin, was set on fire. At the time, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist in Berlin at the time, as well as three other Bulgarian communists were arrested, tried and executed for starting the fire. Historians today however question whether van der Lubbe and his associates set fire to the Reichstag, or whether the fire was orchestrated and intentionally started by the Nazis. What is agreed upon though is that Adolf Hitler used the fire in the Reichstag as “evidence” of the Communist plot to overthrow the state, leading the German President Hindenburg to agree to Nazi requests to suspend civil liberties and give Hitler extraordinary “emergency powers”. The fire in the Reichstag solidified Nazi rule over Germany and was important in Hitler’s creation of the authoritarian state.

Hitler had been sworn in as Germany’s chancellor and as head of a coalition government only a month earlier. Hitler had envisioned passing the “Enabling Act” through the Reichstag, which would have given the Chancellor (himself) the power to pass laws by decree without the Reichstag in extraneous emergencies. The Enabling Act required 2/3s majority support in the Reichstag, and in January, the Nazis controlled only 1/3 of the seats in the Reichstag.

On February 27th, the Reichstag caught fire. Despite the work of the firemen at the scene, most of the Reichstag was gutted by the blaze. After it was reported that Communists had been arrested for the fire, Hitler asked for and received the “Reichstag Fire Decree” from President Hindenburg. The decree suspended civil liberties in Germany, allowing the Nazis to ban publications that they deemed unfriendly to their cause. Hitler also espoused that the fire in the Reichstag was evidence of a Communist plot to take over Germany, leading to the arrest of thousands of Communists in the days after the fire (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD). These arrests prevented Communists from taking their seats in the Reichstag. As well, several delegates of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were intimidated from taking their seats in the Reichstag, under-representing their vote in the final tally for the Enabling Act. Consequently on March 23rd, the Enabling Act easily passed through Reichstag, making Hitler effectively the dictator of Germany, der Führer (the leader).

For the rest of the Third Reich’s existence, the Reichstag would not be in use. The building was severely damaged due to Allied bombing, and in postwar Germany, the Reichstag remained in disuse (note that Reichstag was physically in West Berlin, however only metres away from communist East Berlin). The West German parliament was moved to Bonn during the Cold War, leaving the Reichstag in a state of functional limbo. In 1999, 9 years after German reunification, German parliament met in the Reichstag for the first time in 66 years following renovations and restoration. The Reichstag is the second most visited attraction in Germany (after the Cologne Cathedral), and features a huge glass dome that replaced the original cupola (dome) of the Reichstag destroyed in the war. The glass dome allows for a 360° view of the Berlin cityscape. The glass dome also sits directly on top of the debating chamber of the Reichstag, symbolic of government transparency and the idea that the people are above the government, as was not the case during Nazi Germany. As someone who just visited Berlin in the past summer, I can testify that the Reichstag is definitely one of the must-see landmarks of that great city! Registration is required beforehand, but the good thing is that it is free and conveniently located close to other Berlin attractions such as the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz, and the Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe).

Here is a link to the City of Berlin’s tourist page on visiting the Reichstag and it’s history: http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/reichstag

And here is the link for registering to visit the dome of the Reichstag: http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html

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February 21st – Nixon visits China

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China, marking the first time an American president had visited Communist China. Nixon’s visit marked the end of almost 25 years of separation between the United States and Mainland China (= Communist China/People’s Republic of China), and led to improved relations between the two countries. The president’s week-long trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou was described by Nixon himself as “the week that changed the world”.

Ever since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the United States recognized the government in Taiwan, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, as the sole government of China. American diplomatic recognition was extended only to Taiwan and not Mainland China. Ironically, Nixon, a politician who had made his career as being fervently anti-communist, recognized the need to improve relations with Mainland China during his presidency. Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed that opening to China would allow the Americans to gain further diplomatic leverage against the other communist great power, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. Additionally, improving relations with Communist China was thought by Kissinger to aid in a quicker resolution to the Vietnam War. From his first day in the Oval Office, Nixon worked towards open communication with Mainland China.

From February 21st to 28th, 1972, Nixon made his historical trip to China, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou.  Almost immediately after landing in Beijing on Air Force One, Nixon met with Chairman Mao for a one hour meeting. Upon being introduced to Nixon, Mao quipped, through a translator, to Nixon: “I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-Shek would not approve of this.” Allegedly, Mao told his doctor after his encounter with the American president that he found Nixon “forthright” and Kissinger “suspicious”. While not attending diplomatic meetings, Nixon got the chance to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Ming Dynasty Tombs. As American television journalists (over 100) followed President Nixon throughout his trip to China, many Americans were able to see on TV these Chinese landmarks as well as a glimpse into life in Communist China.

Later on in the week, the United States and Mainland China issued the Shanghai Communiqué. In the Communiqué, the two governments pledged to normalize relations between their two countries, agreed that there was only ‘one China’ and that Taiwan was part of that China (the wording was such that the United States did not necessarily recognize that Taiwan was part of Communist China however), and that American military installations on Taiwan would be cut back. In Shanghai, Nixon said the following of what the Communiqué meant:

“This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communiqué is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge.”

Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 paved the way for increased Sino-American foreign relations. In 1979, the American government officially switched its diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing, ending official relations with Taiwan. Historians also credit Nixon’s visit for leading to increased economic ties that bind the two countries together today.

Here is a link to a film produced by the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library documenting President Nixon’s historic trip to China. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cfsI4ZjTbU

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