FYEN, ALFRED (named at birth Alfred-François), civil engineer, professor, and school principal; b. 7 March 1865 in Brussels, son of Alfred-Jean-Baptiste Fyen and Jeanne-Wilhelmine Kelder; m. first Marie-Joséphine Francart (d. 22 March 1917); m. secondly 29 Oct. 1917 Éva Désy in Montreal, and they had four daughters and one son; d. there 2 Nov. 1934.
Alfred Fyen grew up in a French-speaking Roman Catholic family of industrialists in Brussels. His father, a ceramics maker, owned a factory in which he made household crockery. Unlike the sons of other earthenware manufacturers, Alfred did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He attended the Free University of Brussels from 1881 to 1884.
In July 1885 Fyen enlisted in the 1st Regiment of Lancers, a cavalry unit stationed in Namur. He distinguished himself by finishing first in the horse-riding class. In November 1888 he entered the Royal Military Academy in Brussels, the elite school for training officers for the Belgian army. He took a combined program in artillery and military engineering, graduating in May 1893 with the rank of artillery sub lieutenant. He rose through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1897 and adjutant to the director of the rifle school near Antwerp in 1903.
Fyen embarked on a new career in August 1903, when an industrial concern in Montreal offered to hire him on a trial basis as an engineer. It seems he did not stay long in this position. In fact, after moving to Quebec City, he organized a central preparatory course to ready students for admission to the École Polytechnique in Montreal or the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., or to write the examinations leading to admission into the professional bodies of technical fields (such as engineering or land surveying). At the request of the president of the Land Surveyors of the Province of Quebec, Joseph-Narcisse Gastonguay*, who was backed by the Quebec Chamber of Commerce, the Université Laval in Quebec City established the École Centrale de Préparation et d’Arpentage in 1907. Fyen was the school’s director of studies and also taught courses in mathematics, infinitesimal calculus, descriptive geometry, and mechanics. In addition, in 1907 he wrote two treatises for teaching algebra and arithmetic.
Fyen did not remain long in Quebec City. When Émile Balète, the director of studies at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, retired, premier Lomer Gouin* asked Fyen to be Balète’s successor. Upon Fyen’s appointment on 10 Aug. 1908, the school became affiliated with the faculty of arts at the Université Laval. By the end of the 1907–8 session, there were 12 faculty members and 172 students. On taking up his position, the new director immediately found himself “overwhelmed with work,” as he wrote in a letter of 20 Sept. 1908.
In the course of the 1908–9 school year, Fyen set about building the electrical, chemical, and mining laboratories that had been recommended by Balète. He distinguished himself from his predecessor, however, by introducing courses in the humanities and the natural sciences, with a view to developing “well-rounded men,” as he put it in a speech published in the Revue canadienne in 1908. Starting with the 1909–10 school year, Fyen added an extra year’s study to the École Polytechnique’s programs in civil engineering and architecture. This supplementary year, which prepared students for the entrance examinations to the school’s first formal year of studies and for the rigorous demands of their scientific work, proved necessary for reducing the number of failures. In the hope of training not only civil engineers but also engineers in mining, electricity, hydraulics, and railways, Fyen oversaw the creation of a year of specialized courses in which students could enrol at the end of their program. Only the course in industrial chemistry would survive (1917–58), thanks to the support of Professor Louis Bourgoin and to the financial backing of the Chambre de Commerce du District de Montréal and of Joseph-Émile Vanier (1923–33), an engineering consultant who had graduated in the first class of the École Polytechnique.
During his tenure as director of studies, Fyen played a part in setting up a workshop for mechanical preparation, a museum, drafting rooms, and a laboratory for testing materials used in construction and in road building. In addition, he supported the work of the Association des Anciens Élèves de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal and the publication of its journal, the Revue trimestrielle canadienne. He founded the École d’Arts Décoratifs et Industriels (1912–17) and was involved in developing the architecture department, whose professors were transferred to the School of Fine Arts of Montreal, which was established in 1922. Fyen increased the teaching staff by recruiting graduates of the École Polytechnique as well as professors from Belgium and France; the number of faculty doubled by the 1908–9 school year, and stabilized thereafter at just under 30. Student enrolment fell slightly while Fyen was director, primarily because of World War I.
Fyen’s appointment was not renewed in July 1923. With the support of the Corporation de l’École Polytechnique, Vanier proposed that, for the first time, the director of studies be a graduate of the school. The corporation then created the position of honorary director for Fyen; he was thus able to advise his successor, Augustin Frigon*, on his responsibilities. From September 1923 Fyen taught mathematics at the École Polytechnique and the School of Fine Arts of Montreal. He also ran a central preparatory school in Montreal similar to the one he had set up in Quebec City. He would serve as principal and teacher in this school until his death in 1934.
Though Fyen had become a naturalized British subject in 1911, he nevertheless remained deeply attached to his native land. He went back regularly to see his family, friends, and former army colleagues in Belgium. After World War I he founded and directed the Comité Canadien pour la Restauration de la Bibliothèque de l’Université de Louvain to help rebuild the university’s library, which had been burned down by German soldiers. From 1921 and for more than ten years afterwards, he gave outstanding service as president of the Société Belge de Bienfaisance. This organization assisted Belgian immigrants who needed money, work, shelter, clothing, and coal in order to survive, or who wanted to return to their homeland. In recognition of his work, the Belgian government made Fyen a knight of the Order of Leopold II in 1924 and a knight of the Order of the Crown in 1930.
Despite his stern disposition and his military discipline, Alfred Fyen was capable of generosity. He loved welcoming friends to his cottage in Oka. His final years were spent in the company of his five young children and his wife Éva, whom he had met on her return from a visit to India, where her father, Louis-Arsène Désy, an engineer and architect from Montreal, had worked. Fyen died in Montreal at the age of 69, following a stomach operation.
The author would like to thank Roger Fyen of Montreal for an interview given on 21 July 2005 and for access to his private archives, which contains official documents, letters, and photographs.
Alfred Fyen is the author of Algèbre … (Québec, 1907); Traité d’arithmétique … (Québec, 1907); “Discours de M. Fyen, directeur de l’École polytechnique,” Rev. canadienne (Montréal), nouv. sér., 2 (juillet–décembre 1908): 318–25; “Cours de géométrie descriptive” (texte polycopié, [Montréal?], n.d.); “Projets d’épures de géométrie descriptive” (texte polycopié, [Montréal?], n.d.). In addition, he issued the annual reports of the École Polytechnique de Montréal for the years 1909–24: Québec, Dép. de l’Instruction Publique, Rapport du surintendant de l’Instruction publique de la province de Québec, 1910–24.
Arch. de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, Procès-verbaux de la corporation, 10 août 1908; 2 févr. 1915; 16, 30 juill., 8 oct. 1923. Arch. of the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military Hist. (Brussels), file 11813. BANQ-CAM, CE601-S1, 29 oct. 1917; CE601-S35, 6 nov. 1934; CE601-S51, 28 mars 1917. Centre de Référence de l’Amérique Française (Québec), Fonds du séminaire de Québec, Univ., MS-34.8; SME 9/168/20a; SME 9/168/20b; SME 9/174/70a; Univ. 52/76. Le Devoir, 2–3 nov. 1934. Armand Circé, “Vie de l’école et de l’association,” Rev. trimestrielle canadienne (Montréal), 21 (1935): 102–3. Robert Gagnon et A. J. Ross, Histoire de l’École polytechnique, 1873–1990: la montée des ingénieurs francophones (Montréal, 1991). Jean Hamelin, Histoire de l’université Laval: les péripéties d’une idée (Sainte-Foy [Québec], 1995). Olivier Maurault, L’École polytechnique de Montréal, 1873–1948 ([Montréal, 1948]). Univ. Laval, Annuaire, 1908–9. André Vermeirre, L’immigration des Belges au Québec (Sillery [Québec], 2001). Lowet de Wotrenge, “Essai sur les porcelaines dites de Bruxelles,” Soc. Royale d’Archéologie de Bruxelles, Annales, 36 (1931): 166–67.