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Original title:  Photograph Dr. R. F. Ruttan, Montreal, QC, 1918 Wm. Notman & Son 1918, 20th century Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process 17 x 12 cm Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd. II-224227 © McCord Museum Keywords:  male (26812) , Photograph (77678) , portrait (53878)

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RUTTAN, ROBERT FULFORD, chemist, university professor and administrator, and office holder; b. 15 July 1856 in Newburgh, Upper Canada, son of Dr Allan Ruttan and Caroline Smith; d. unmarried 19 Feb. 1930 in Montreal.

Robert Fulford Ruttan’s mother was an ardent churchwoman and she may have named him after Francis Fulford*, who had been enthroned as the first Anglican bishop of Montreal six years before Ruttan’s birth. His family moved to Napanee, Upper Canada, around 1863. Ruttan graduated from the local collegiate institute in 1877 and enrolled in the honours course in natural science at the University of Toronto. There he acquired a lifelong enthusiasm for chemistry and biology and obtained a ba in 1881, winning a gold medal.

At that time there were few opportunities in Canada to pursue a career, academic or industrial, in chemistry, so Ruttan registered in medicine at McGill College, Montreal. Apparently he was attracted to this institution because it was his father’s alma mater and because of the pre-eminence of Dr William Osler* in the institutes of medicine and of Dr Gilbert Prout Girdwood* in practical chemistry. He graduated md in 1884, receiving the Sutherland Gold Medal in chemistry and the Morrice scholarship in physiology.

Ruttan never practised medicine. Seeking to perfect his knowledge by postgraduate studies in organic chemistry, he travelled to Europe and spent two years working under August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the University of Berlin. The results of his research were published in several German and Canadian journals. Ruttan would not excel in personal research or in directing the research of others. His friend and colleague Archibald Byron Macallum* ascribed this situation to a lack of time rather than a lack of ability. Rather, Ruttan’s main contributions to chemistry were as a teacher and administrator. He had benefited greatly from his exposure to Hofmann’s brilliance as lecturer and demonstrator. “As teacher of chemistry,” Macallum would later note, Ruttan “had few equals.”

Immediately on his return to Canada in 1886 Ruttan was appointed lecturer in chemistry in the faculty of medicine at McGill. He was permitted to supplement his salary by performing water analyses and other tests for outside clients. He became one of the first members of a small group of public analysts who qualified under a recent act of the Canadian government. In 1891 he was promoted professor, and five years later he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada.

Tall, handsome, energetic, and friendly, Ruttan was a leader in the advancements McGill made under principals John William Dawson* and William Peterson which earned for the institution a worldwide reputation in medicine and to a lesser extent in science, pure and applied. For example, he ensured that chemistry (in the novel form of physiological chemistry or biochemistry) was a strong component of the medical curriculum and that chemistry was at the forefront of postgraduate studies and research. In 1912 the three chemistry programs at McGill in the faculties of medicine, arts, and applied science were amalgamated into one department, with Ruttan as the first director. He would hold the post until 1928. In addition, he served as third director of the Chemistry and Mining Building, supervising non-professional staff and overseeing maintenance, repairs, and improvements. These accomplishments were admired outside McGill as well as at home. He was awarded an honorary d.sc. by the University of Toronto in 1914 and was elected president of the Royal Society of Canada in 1919.

Among Ruttan’s ambitions was a desire to have chemistry recognized in Canada as a profession and to ensure that industrial chemistry was provided with the means to be effective across the nation. In 1920 he helped to found the Canadian Institute of Chemistry, incorporated the following year as a society of professionals. As president-elect of the British Society of Chemical Industry (a Canadian section had been formed in 1902), he arranged for it to hold its annual meeting in Montreal in 1921, outside Great Britain for the first time since its founding in 1881.

World War I made evident the need to mobilize the industrial capacity of Canada. Participants in devising ways to achieve this end were the Canadian government, the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, and several universities. After months of deliberation the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was appointed by the government in 1916. Nine years later it was authorized to shorten its name to the National Research Council. Ruttan was one of its original members. Its first administrative chairman was his friend Macallum. He was succeeded in 1921 by Ruttan, who during a short mandate (February to August 1921) managed to get a bill passed in the House of Commons to establish the National Research Institute, a central laboratory whose director would report to the council. Unfortunately the bill was killed in the Senate. Ruttan had had previous experience with government laboratories, having acted on the advisory committee of the Forest Products Laboratories, which opened on the McGill campus in 1913.

These extramural concerns did not deter Ruttan from vigorously discharging his duties at McGill. The 1920s were called the “Golden Age of Chemistry.” A number of talented young professors were appointed at McGill, all eager to direct postgraduate research. They included Harold Hibbert*, Frederick Murray Godshall Johnson, Otto Maass*, and George Stafford Whitby. Ruttan, administrator par excellence, served as dean of graduate studies and research from 1924 to 1928.

Ruttan was an accomplished athlete: a cricketer and yachtsman, and later in life, a golfer. (He would be president of the Royal Canadian Golf Association in 1907.) In 1906 he was asked to serve on Canada’s first national olympic organization, the Central Olympic Committee. As a young lecturer, he had shared lodgings with Dr John George Adami and Dr Wyatt Galt Johnston*. They led a carefree life and were known as the Three Musketeers. Ruttan enjoyed the company of women, but never married. Bobby, as he was known, had a host of friends and loved to entertain at the University Club or at his apartment on Sherbrooke Street. When he retired after 40 years of service at the end of the 1927–28 session, his colleagues presented him with his portrait (which now hangs in the club) and his students in industrial chemistry gave him a cane. The library-staff room of the chemistry department at McGill University is named in his honour. After an illness lasting several months he died at his residence in 1930.

Robert V. V. Nicholls

Papers presented by Robert Fulford Ruttan to the Royal Society of Canada can be found in its Trans.: 1st ser., 5 (1887), sect. iii: 61–74; 10 (1892), sect.iii: 35–41; 3rd ser., 9 (1915), sect.iii: 1–11; 10 (1916), sect.iii: 169–70; 14 (1920), sect.iii: xxxv–lvi. Reprints of three articles which he published in medical or scientific journals have been made available on microfiche by the CIHM and are cited in its Reg. These and other papers and addresses by Ruttan are listed in the National union catalog.

MUA, MG 1062, R. V. V. Nicholls, “Notes for a history of the department of chemistry” (n.d.); MG 3022. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. RSC, Trans., 3rd ser., 24 (1930), proc.: vii–xi.

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Cite This Article

Robert V. V. Nicholls, “RUTTAN, ROBERT FULFORD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ruttan_robert_fulford_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ruttan_robert_fulford_15E.html
Author of Article:   Robert V. V. Nicholls
Title of Article:   RUTTAN, ROBERT FULFORD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   May 26, 2024