The first graduates

Monday, October 31, 2016
by Chris Redmond, from Lions and Chevrons: A Fragmentary History of the University of Waterloo

“The first person to receive an earned degree from the University of Waterloo” was Ronald Mullin. That’s well established, as early as James Scott’s book Of Mud and Dreams in 1967, and it’s strictly true, although not everything in Scott’s book is. The same page that pictures Mullin and identifies him as the first graduate also bears a picture of Dana Porter being installed as the University’s first chancellor, and dates it to 1959; the installation in fact took place in 1960. The chancellor’s installation and Mullin’s degree, a MA in Mathematics, were both features of Waterloo’s First Convocation, held June 18, 1960, in Seagram Gymnasium (now part of University Stadium at Wilfrid Laurier University).

Ron Mullin (left) shaking hands wutg dean of arts W.K. Thomas (right).

Ron Mullin being congratulated by dean of arts W.K. Thomas. University of Waterloo Library Special Collection & Archives.

Mullin’s degree, at the master’s level, is evidence of how quickly Waterloo had jumped into graduate education. The institution was not quite three years old, and the first undergraduate students, those engineers who began classes in July 1957, would not receive their BASc degrees until July 1962. The degree was, indeed, Master of Arts; Mathematics was in the process of moving from the Faculty of Science to the newly organized Faculty of Arts in mid-1960.

Ron Mullin, who had done his undergraduate work at the University of Western Ontario, went on to earn a PhD in mathematics in 1964, also from Waterloo. He then embarked on a faculty career in mathematics, settling in the department of combinatorics and optimization when math became a full-fledged faculty in 1967. He chaired the department for a time, helped establish the Centre for Applied Cryptographic Research, and was a co-founder of spinoff company Certicom. He retired in 1996 and was named a Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

Ron Mullin graduating with his PHD

Ron Mullin was the first to wear a PhD cap and gown. University of Waterloo Library Special Collection & Archives.

Seconds after Mullin received his MA on that June afternoon, seven more degrees were awarded, all in “applied mathematics” and all bearing the title Master of Science. Two of the MSc recipients would go on to distinguished careers as Waterloo faculty members: J. Douglas Lawson, later to be president of Algoma University College, and Peter H. O’N. Roe, who would serve as an associate dean in the engineering faculty and chair the board of governors of Renison College.

The convocation ceremony also included presentation of three honorary degrees, one of them to James John Talman, librarian at the University of Western Ontario. “We also honour, in honouring him, the institution which he serves,” said the chancellor, “for the University of Western Ontario has been the parent institution of the University of Waterloo.”