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Claude Bissell was born on February 10, 1916, one of ten children of George T. Bissell, a lumberman from Meaford, Ontario, and Maggie Editha Bowen. The family later moved to Toronto where he attended Runnymede Collegiate. He was a very shy but brilliant student, with an Edward Blake Scholarship in English and History. In 1932 he entered University College at the University of Toronto where maintained first-class standing throughout his undergraduate years; the several scholarships he received saw him through financially. He entered graduate school in 1936 as a Reuben Wells Leonard fellow, receiving the following year an MA in English for his study of the satire of Samuel Butler.
While at the U of T, he found time for an impressive array of extra-curricular activities. He was a member of the Foreign Affairs Club; headed the Forum Club and the Parliamentary Club in third year, and the English and History Club in fourth year. In the latter year he was also vice-president of the Historical Club and editor of the Undergraduate. His active participation in athletics was reserved for the University College lacrosse team.
In 1937 Bissell was awarded the Cornell Fellowship in English by Cornell University, drawn there perhaps by Herbert James Davis who had been head of the Department of English at University College but who had just been hired by Cornell. For the next three years he studied English and Philosophy under Davis, Frank D. Curtin, Gustavus Watts Cunningham and Edwin Arthur Burtt. In 1940 his thesis, “Evolutionary ethics in Samuel Butler”, was awarded the Luana L. Messenger Prize for graduate research at Cornell, and was subsequently published, in part, by Cornell University Press. In 1938 Bissell was hired as a part-time instructor in English, teaching an introductory course in English literature, ‘English for freshmen 2’.
Bissell returned to University College as an instructor in English in 1941 and in November 1942 he was given leave of absence to enter active service with the Canadian Army. Following training in the Officers’ Course at Trois Rivière and Camp Borden, he was commissioned lieutenant and went overseas in July 1943 as a reinforcement infantry officer. In the autumn he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and served in the campaign in north-west Europe from Caen to Oldenburg, first as a platoon and intelligence officer, and then as an adjutant with the rank of captain. At the end of hostilities he returned to England, “ostensibly to take a course, but really to get married. I made up for a lack of Scottish blood by marrying a Scottish girl,” Christina (later “Christine”) Gray of Bothwell, Lanarkshire. In July of 1945 he joined the staff of Khaki College in England, serving as a member of the selection committee, English department, and warden of a men’s residence. In 1946 he returned to the University of Toronto.
He was promoted to assistant professor in English, University College, and on 1 July 1946 succeeded the late Charles N. Cochrane as dean of residence. It was a period of heavy veteran enrolment, and the serious overcrowding at at 43 St. George Street and 78 Queen’s Park (Holwood House) was compounded by the College having no official men’s residence. Bissell skillfully rose to the challenges he faced, a factor in his being made, in 1948, assistant to President Sidney Smith. He served as a general liaison officer between the president and the faculty and students, while continuing with his academic duties. On 1 July 1950, he was promoted to associate professor and two years later was appointed vice-president of the University. In 1956 he left the University to become president of Carleton College in Ottawa, returning two years later as president of the University of Toronto, in succession to Sidney Smith.
In 1956 the Varsity Graduate reported that Bissell’s early scholastic “interests had been chiefly in the prose of thought – Butler, Addison, Ruskin and others; his early publications were on Shaw (qua thinker rather than qua playwright) and Butler. A growing fascination with the relationship between literature and society inspired studies of the social observation and analysis in George Eliot’s novels, and of nineteenth-century Canadian literary taste. Since then, Canadian fiction has found in him a perceptive, appreciatively and forthright critic.” Bissell’s interest in Canadian literature was initially reflected in a graduate course, “Studies in Canadian history and letters,” which he developed with Donald Creighton in history and introduced into the curriculum in 1947. By the mid-1950s he had added a course on the “English literary tradition”, a comparative study of American, Australian and Canadian literature. He also developed courses on Victorian thought at the undergraduate level and the late Victorian novel at the graduate level.
Bissell was also actively involved in scholarly research, contributing (from 1948 to 1959) his annual “Fiction in ‘Letters in Canada’” to the University of Toronto Quarterly, and articles to a number of other scholarly journals. His interest in history was revealed in University College – a portrait, 1853-1953, marking the centennial of that college. In addition to his administrative duties, Bissell studied the procedures of universities in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, and his thoughts were reflected in a number of articles on university governance and education that were published in journals and books over the years. A selection of his addresses appeared as The strength of the University (1968).
As president of the University of Toronto, Bissell initially faced some very challenging problems: a university bursting at the seams and in desperate need of more buildings and staff to accommodate a tripling of the student body between 1958 and 1971, all to be obtained without lowering standards. During his tenure, the physical plant of the University was greatly expanded, including three new colleges (Innis, Massey, and New) on the St. George campus, as well as two satellite campuses, Erindale and Scarborough Colleges. A host of new academic programmes, interdisciplinary centres and institutes were created, the Arts curriculum was massively overhauled and other curricula were re-examined. Bissell pushed the development of the graduate studies program which coincided with his drive for a new central library complex; by the time he stepped down it was far advanced and irreversible. He also played a major role in launching York University in 1960. As the 1960s progressed, student activism and how to handle it took up a considerable amount of time. His sabbatical at Harvard University in 1967-1968, where he was Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies, allowed him to follow closely the even greater turmoil on American campuses. What he observed was a factor in his subsequent decision to revamp the administrative structure of the University, replacing the bicameral Board of Governors and Senate with a unicameral Governing Council.
Dr. Bissell maintained his deep interest in education and the arts by serving on many boards and instituting new educational initiatives. He served terms as chairman of the Canada Council (1960-1962), the Canadian Universities Foundation (1962), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Committee of Presidents of Universities of Ontario. In 1962 he was elected president of the World University Service of Canada for a two-year term and president of the National Conference of Canadian Universities and Colleges. He was also a member of the Ontario Council of the Arts, a governor the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Foundation, and a trustee of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation. Dr. Bissell was recognized early and often for his contributions to society. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1957, and was the recipient of 20 honorary degrees, along with fellowships and book awards.
After stepping down as president, Bissell retired to his base in Massey College to research, write, and teach. He was an active participant in College affairs, with particular interest in its Library. He returned to teaching English until 1983, with graduate courses on major Canadian writers and Canadian literary criticism. In 1973 he was Commonwealth Fellow at Leeds University, Memorial Lecturer at the University of Ghana in 1976, and in 1983 he delivered a series of lectures at the University of Auckland. Bissell’s reflections on his experiences as a university president appeared in Halfway up Parnassus in 1974, to much popular and critical acclaim. In the 1980s he wrote a two-volume biography of Vincent Massey and Ernest Buckler Remembered, which also won awards. In his later years, he contributed significantly to the writing of the history of his regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. With more leisure time, he enjoyed his membership in the Arts and Letters Club, and the Bissells travelled more and spent longer periods at their summer home in Cape Breton.
He died on 21 June 2000 in Toronto, and was survived by his widow, his daughter Deidre Macdonald, and three grandchildren.