Committee recommends new approaches to naming assets like buildings, awards and endowed chairs to increase representation of historically marginalized communities 

Two committees established to assess and create guidelines on the naming of buildings and other spaces as well as endowed chairs and awards in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) have concluded their work and presented their recommendations to VP-Dean David Eidelman, MDCM, and Faculty leadership.  

Student motion 

The Ad Hoc Committees on Naming and Commemoration at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences build on the conclusions of McGill’s 2018 Final Report of the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming. That committee was established by Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi and co-chaired by Anja Geitmann, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and vice-principal, Macdonald Campus, and Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law. Among its aims was to offer recommendations on the de-naming of McGill’s Redmen sports teams, which were eventually renamed the Redbirds. 

The FMHS committees are similarly part of a larger process of self-reflection partly spurred by a motion passed by the McGill Medical Students’ Society in 2019. The students demanded the Faculty limit the use of Sir William Osler’s name on campus assets because of racist and sexist comments the McGill medical graduate and one-time professor made during his life. The Faculty organized a symposium in February 2021, inviting international and local scholars to explore Osler’s legacy. To act on some of the ideas that came up in the symposium and to offer guidance on naming, Dr. Eidelman struck the ad hoc committees, and asked Annmarie Adams, PhD, Professor and then Chair of the Department of Social Studies of Medicine (SSoM) and current Department Chair Thomas Schlich, MD, to lead them.  

Taking stock  

The first committee, led by Prof. Adams, was tasked with creating an inventory of all the named assets in the Faculty. “Assisted by Fiona Kenney, a PhD student in architecture, we did a thorough survey of everything we could find, from very small prizes to very big buildings,” explains Prof. Adams. The search revealed that there is an undeniable gender bias when it comes to naming spaces and prizes in the Faculty, overwhelmingly in favour of men (see charts below). The exceptions are Schools with a traditionally higher number of women faculty members and graduates, chiefly the Ingram School of Nursing and the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, which have many awards and one endowed chair each named after women. 

Graphic courtesy Fiona Kenney and the First Ad Hoc Committee on Naming and Commemoration at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

Diversity in naming in terms of race, ethnicity and other indicators was a little trickier to determine based solely on names and sometimes photos, explains Prof. Adams. But she says it is fairly safe to conclude that most of the honourees are white.    

As for Osler, the committee found that a total of nine entities are named for him, which amounts to about 4% of the Faculty’s named assets. That number may seem small, but Prof. Adams points out it doesn’t tell the whole story. “It’s a little misleading because something like the Osler Library of the History of Medicine is so big and so important, but it only counts as one thing,” says Prof. Adams. Adding a further nuance, the library is named after Osler as it was created from his personal collection of medical history texts, which he bequeathed to McGill upon his death in 1919.  

Names matter    

The second committee, chaired by Dr. Schlich, comprised a cross section of representatives from the communities traditionally excluded from the Faculty’s naming process, including Indigenous faculty members, and historians, students and other stakeholders. “It was important to include the experience and perspectives of members of historically excluded communities as well as the advice of experts in matters of history and heritage,” says Dr. Schlich.   

The mandate of this committee was to establish guidelines for naming assets based on principles of equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice. “Those are obviously principles that were not in the foreground in the past when naming was done,” notes Dr. Schlich.  Though some argue that names are not worth all the fuss, the committee’s findings indicate the opposite is true. “Names can create a sense of belonging or not belonging, and they really shape people’s worlds,” says Dr. Schlich. “They can be inspiring or they can be hurtful.” Adds Prof. Adams, “Naming is never neutral.”  

Indeed, Dr. Schlich notes that the Faculty’s role in patient care means the stakes are even higher than for the rest of the University. “The Faculty is in a unique position in the University because it impacts patients and health care workers who are a much more diverse group,” he explains. Medicine’s long tradition of naming instruments or diseases after people can also be problematic. “Often this becomes a kind of hero worship. There is reason to counteract that because these heroes are not at all representative or inclusive or diverse, on any level.”   

Next steps 

The committee’s report offers guidance for considering new names as well as for de-naming and renaming. It urges the FMHS to choose names that welcome and include historically marginalized communities, and also better reflect the people who are in the Faculty now. It recommends wide consultations during these processes and that more consideration is given to how the names will impact all members of society.  

Use of Indigenous names is encouraged, to both increase the visibility of Indigenous representation at McGill and acknowledge the communities that the FMHS serves and recognize that we are situated on land that has served as a meeting place for Indigenous peoples. The report also notes that the FMHS has a duty to redress the gender imbalance, as well as to consider class, sexual orientation, bodily difference and disabilities in its future naming.   

Naming assets after a place, or after an event or an idea, as is common in Indigenous cultures, is also suggested. “An emphasis on individuals only is also contrary to the appreciation of teamwork and collaborative effort that is valued within the health sciences,” notes the report.   

The final decision on naming, de-naming and renaming ultimately lies with the University’s Board of Governors, and not the Faculty. The committee chairs are hopeful the Faculty’s work induces the formation of a University-wide committee to implement the recommendations of their committees and also the 2018 working group.    

Dr. Eidelman welcomes the committees’ findings and recommendations, and is keen to work with the University on the next steps. “Our Faculty is committed to creating spaces that are welcoming and safe for our learners, faculty and staff, as well as for patients and healthcare workers in our partner institutions,” he says. “These guidelines will help us revise our approach to naming our assets and ensure that historically marginalized groups are leading the discussions. This is an important part of our journey towards creating a community that is inclusive and reflective of all its members.”   


Final Report of the McGill Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming (December 2018)  

Decision about Redmen name 

Our Words Matter: Providing an inclusive environment where all feel welcomed, respected and safe in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences