Wright, Robert Ramsay

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Graduate of the University of Edinburgh (1871)
Professor of Natural Philosophy, UofT
First Professor of Biology (1887)
Head of Biology Department (1874-1912)
First Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1901)
First Vice-President of the University of Toronto (1902)
Retired 1912

FRSC (President)

Robert Ramsay Wright began as Professor of Natural History at University College in 1874, succeeding Professor Henry Nicholson as Head of the department of Natural History. He also became Curator of the Museum of Natural History in 1876, and retained both these titles until 1887 when his designation changed from Professor of Natural History at University College to Professor of Biology at the University of Toronto.

He came to Toronto at the age of 22 years-old. He was a Scotsman with a strong Oxford influence, and had worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Edinburgh. He was also a member in the famous Challenger Deep Sea Expedition. During his 38 years of residence in Toronto, Ramsay Wright was recognized as a leader in many fields, and "the influence which this brilliant teacher and investigator exercised in his own Department of Biology in the University of Toronto and in the closely related Faculty of Medicine makes him one of the most memorable figures in the history of Canadian education" (Huntsman, 1934).

He was the first secretary of the School of Practical Science and in 1901 became the first dean of the Faculty of Arts. In 1902 he became the first vice-president of the University of Toronto.

The first publication published under his name was in 1876 in the Canadian Journal, and was entitled "Haeckel's Anthropogenie". Ramsay Wright published several reports of original research in biology. The topics of his publications varied within this realm and covered topics in anthropology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, parasitology, and protozoology. He made important contributions on the anatomy of fishes, including, but not limited to, the introduction of the term Neuromast. Through his publication a Preliminary Report on the Fish and Fisheries of Ontario, he urged for a systematic survey of Ontario waters. This publication later on had a large influence on the establishment of research stations on Georgian Bar and on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by the Federal Government and the Biological Board of Canada. Wright was also an active participant in the formation of a Bermuda Biological Station.

In his last publication in 1911, the Presidential Address to the Royal Society of Canada, he makes mention of "certain new science which have arisen within the biological domain and which owe their special development to this recent period." The new sciences developed in the biology department during his period as Head were bacteriology, immunology, protozoology, ultra-microscopy, marine biology, cytology, physiology, botany, heredity and eugenics.

As a lecturer, Ramsay Wright was very formal, always bowing upon entering and leaving the lecture hall while adorning a lecture gown, a custom that was universal at the period. He was also known to be ambidextrous, and often displayed his abilities by simultaneously creating two different drawings on the blackboard during lectures. Wright, along with Louis Agassiz at Harvard, was the first in North America to introduce to his classes laboratory work with the use of microscopes.


Craigie, H.E. A History of the Department of Zoology of the University of Toronto. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Huntsman, A.G. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Canada, Ser. 3, 28, IV-VI (1934).