Born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in 1887, Peter William Macfarlane, trained as an electrician and was working for the Otis Elevator Company in Montreal before volunteering for the Canadian army in 1915. A regimental Sergeant Major with the 5th Royal Highlanders of Canada, he was wounded on two different occasions, resulting in a permanent disability in his right leg. After his discharge from the army, he came to McGill as an engineer and served as Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds from 1928 until his retirement in 1949.
He planned and oversaw all construction on campus. During his tenure, the building capacity of McGill almost doubled.
With the influx of returning veterans at the end of World War II, Macfarlane became a key figure in the planning to quickly retrofit a former R.C.A.F. base in St. Jean, Québec into a University facility.
The new campus, Dawson College, was officially opened in 1947 to handle the doubling of the student population. Due to the veterans often arriving with their families there was an urgent need for both academic buildings and residential housing, including a revamped Student Health Service for spouses and children.
Macfarlane’s work made a lasting impact on the campus we know and love today.
In his obituary in the McGill News in 1949, his long-time colleague and University Registrar Tommy Mathews offered this assessment of him: “We can imagine his spirit now haunting the grounds in the winter in anxiety lest the snow should be allowed to remain on the roads, or the surface get too slippery, and in the summer watching over Convocation (worrying about the slightest hitch or delay then making recommendations for the next convocation to improve the process) then carefully inspecting the work of the painters and carpenters preparing the buildings for the next session. We have had more eminent men here but none with a greater devotion to their work for the University.”