University Archives & Special Collections, A-2925. (Patrick Hayes)

Fuel research led to 1919 crisis on campus

Research for an alternative fuel in 1917 would lead to the “University Crisis of 1919” and the dismissal of four members of faculty.

Prof. R.D. MacLaurin, Head of the Department of Chemistry, was interested in the production of gas from straw as a fuel for heating and for engines. Though he was not alone in the research field, MacLaurin was able to build a small extraction plant and operate a McLaughlin Motor Car using straw gas. The research was promising but far from a breakthrough. The volume of gas produced was small and the mileage between fill-ups low.

The most significant aspect of the research was not scientific but financial. MacLaurin felt cheated when President Walter Murray distributed provincial research funds to several campus projects.

Though he had the largest share of the grant, MacLaurin felt he deserved it all. He alleged Murray had misappropriated funds.

A battle ensued for the control of the University administration. Murray was able to maintain the confidence of the Board of Governors and MacLaurin and three of his supporters — Extension Director Samuel Greenway, Law Professor Ira MacKay and Physics Head John L. Hogg — were dismissed. Research into straw gas was discontinued.

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