File B1990-0001 - Ham, James M. (oral history)

Identity area

Reference code

UTA 5001-B1990-0001


Ham, James M. (oral history)


  • 1988 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

17 tapes

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

James M. Ham, the 10th President of the University of Toronto, first came to the University as a student of Electrical Engineering in 1939. It was a role in which he excelled, graduating in 1943 with the highest marks ever awarded to a student in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. His achievements were recognized with several awards including the Engineering Institute of Canada Prize and the British Association for the Advancement of Science Medal. He spent the remainder of the war in the Royal Canadian Navy and then returned to the University to be a lecturer at the Ajax Campus for 1945-46. He again left the University in September 1946 to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he specialized in computer control. He graduated with his Science Masters in 1947 and his Science Doctorate in 1952. During his time at M.I.T., he held various research fellowships and designed a combined analogue computer. After spending a year teaching as an Assistant Professor, he returned to the University of Toronto as Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering where he was responsible for teaching and researching feedback control systems, an area of study vital to automation and automatic control.

He rose through the ranks quickly, becoming full professor in 1959, head of the department in 1964, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering in 1966, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies in 1976 and finally President in 1978. During his five-year term as President, he oversaw a University coping with the first real constraint on public funding in decades. At a time when the role of the University was under public scrutiny and questioning, Ham was a relentless advocate for the University as a place of knowledge. His philosophical bent meant that he supported a liberal arts education against the growing trend in professional schools. Universities were not “in the business of preparing students for jobs but for careers... The nation is dependent on the quality of imagination and understanding brought to bear on the whole human adventure...” This he stressed in an interview with a Globe and Mail reporter in 1981.

Apart from his formidable administrative career at the University of Toronto, Ham was active in many professional engineering associations. Early in his career, he established and chaired the first five years of the National Research Council, Associate Committee on Automatic Control (1959-1964). He also served on the N.R.C. Executive Committee (1969-1974). During the Engineering Centennial of Canada, his expertise was sought out to chair a Technical Program Committee (1985-1987). After his term as President of the University, he was busy founding the Canadian Academy of Professional Engineers, for which he served in the positions of Vice-President (1988-1989) and President (1990-1991). This active involvement speaks to both his dedication to and influence on the engineering profession in Canada.

Ham’s expertise and knowledge was not exclusively applied to university administration or engineering associations. His appointment as Chairman to the Royal Commission on Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, (1974-1976), opened up new avenues of interest. After submitting, what was then considered a groundbreaking critical report on mine safety, his services were sought by various government bodies. These include, to name only a few:

Chair, Industrial Disease Standards Panel, Ministry of Labour, Ontario (1985-87); Member, Advisory Committee Ontario Nuclear Safety Review, 1987-1988; Member, Technical Advisory Panel on Nuclear Safety, Ontario Hydro 1990-1993. It was his work in this field that led him to take up a Fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. to do a comparative study on public policy with respect of health and safety in Canada and the United States. Due to Ham’s failing health, the book based on his research was never completed.

Dr. James M. Ham was recognized for his contributions to higher education, the engineering profession and his public service by being given several honorary degrees and public awards. In 1980 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada. James Ham died of complications from Parkinson’s disease September 16 1997 at the age of 76. At his funeral service, Professor Emeritus Gordon Slemon noted that “Jim Ham has been a leader in Canadian Engineering. He has made a difference. He will be missed.”

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Content and structure area

Scope and content

Interview with James M. Ham by Valerie Schatzker.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access


Conditions governing reproduction

Language of material

Script of material

Language and script notes

Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Finding aids

No transcript

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

Existence and location of copies

Oral history has been digitized. Contact Archives to download mp3 files.

Related units of description

Related descriptions

Notes area

Alternative identifier(s)

Retrieval code


Access points

Subject access points

Place access points

Name access points

Genre access points

Rules and/or conventions used




Accession area

Related subjects

Related people and organizations

Related genres

Related places