Stephen Patterson reflects on Murray Young, 1922-2017

D. Murray Young (1922-2017), professor emeritus in history at the University of New Brunswick, died just before Christmas. Family, friends, and colleagues gathered on January 13 to celebrate his life. Longtime colleague, Stephen Patterson, gave the following remarks.

We who were Murray Young’s colleagues have much to celebrate for he was more than a co-worker. He was a role model, a mentor, and a dear friend. For his students, he was the knowledgeable, fair-minded teacher of things British and imperial. For his fellow historians, he was a model practitioner of the craft, beautifully clear and precise in his writing and generous in sharing his often brilliant insights into how societies grow and change – how history happens. And then there was Murray Young in the University: a member of Senate, one the first faculty members elected to the Board of Governors, and an even-handed chair of his department in years of growth and scholarly achievement.

Murray’s life was shaped by his upbringing in the Nashwaak valley and Fredericton, by the historical forces of Depression and War, by his family’s commitment to education and public service, and by his experience as a veteran-student in the post-war programs of the University of New Brunswick. One could say that his interests were shaped by history itself; in fact, he credited one of his UNB teachers, Dr. A. G. Bailey, with his choice of history as a profession. The University Archives has the copy of Murray’s book he presented to Dr. Bailey in 1961, with the following inscription: “To Dr. A. G. Bailey, with thanks for trying to turn me into a historian.”


Murray Young, 1922-2017

Some might say that Murray, the professional historian, had eclectic interests, ranging from early New Brunswick to emerging countries in Africa, from imperial administration in the Colonial Office to biographical sketches in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, from class-room teaching to University governance, from shop-talk with University colleagues to earnest candidate for the CCF in both federal and provincial elections. But in my observation of his interests and his work, there was a remarkable unity to his thought and a common purpose to his actions.

Murray liked people and he had unshakable faith in their capacity to do good, provided they worked together. Consider the subjects he chose to study: as a Beaverbrook scholar, he went to Britain in 1951 to work, he hoped, on the history of New Brunswick in the 1820s, a tiny sliver in the history of the British Empire but also a decade of remarkable change in the part of the world he knew best. The 1820s were exciting years in the province’s history with important figures like Sir Howard Douglas and significant events like the transformation of the college of New Brunswick into something resembling a university with the founding of King’s College. So many stories to be told, so many interesting people, so many institutional changes. But at King’s College London, Murray met scholars from every part of the world, drawn together under the tutelage of Professor Gerald Graham, eager to look at the British Empire from beginning to end, a Gibbonesque “rise and fall.” Taking a broader view than he had arrived with, Murray chose to write about the administrative agency that ran the empire, the Colonial Office, from its beginnings to 1830. Eventually published in the Imperial Studies Series, the book became the standard reference, but far from being a standard administrative history, it carried the Murray Young stamp: as reviewer Paul Knapland wrote, “The author is much interested in the personnel of the Colonial Office,” and the book was full of “excellent character sketches.” In a word, for Murray, history is about people, and whatever success this tiny administrative unit had in shaping what became a great empire was because of the skill, talent, and dedication of a handful of unsung civil servants. History is about collective action, and human progress starts with educated and thoughtful human beings.

Do you see the pattern I see here? Murray returned to his Alma Mater in 1959 to teach in the Department of History. His most notable scholarly accomplishment here was his publication of twenty-three of the most beautifully crafted, sharply written entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Murray got to write about the colonial builders of New Brunswick, just as he had always wanted. And some, like his biography of Sir Howard Douglas, set a standard rarely surpassed. For me, however, his entry for William Franklin Odell, the province’s provincial secretary in the early nineteenth century, is the standout. Originally assigned to write a tiny notice of 600 words for what was assumed a minor figure, Murray showed otherwise: as provincial secretary, Odell actually ran the province for years in the absence of appointed lieutenant-governors, and did so with skill and sensitivity. Mary Bentley, the supervising editor of the DCB, whose job was to rein in her over-eager authors, wrote back: “we have sheathed our knives,” we want more, you have told us more about provincial secretaries than anyone else who has written for us. Actually, Murray had demonstrated what was central to his view: it’s not the title that matters, it’s the person.

Murray’s profound belief in the value of public institutions and his conviction that it was talented and committed individuals who made them work naturally spilled over into everything he did. Murray’s first decade as a UNB teacher were years of incredible growth, transformation, and turmoil in the University. The small college he attended as a student was now evolving into a modern university, and with the transformation, the need for modern structures of governance. Murray threw himself into the process. He was a member of the Board of Governors during the tumultuous period of the Strax Affair. The board split between reactionaries who would turn back the clock and undo the reforms of recent years and those who took an entirely dispassionate view of things. One of Murray’s favourite stories both at the time and later was about the role of K.C. Irving, a robber baron in the eyes of some but also a prestigious member of the board. It was Irving, Murray related, who kept the lid on, insisting that they think first of the University and its well-being, and skipping the polemics.

Murray was a shrewd judge of people and of the need that every institution has for talented, fair-minded participation. Like his view of history, he believed that human progress depends on the collective action of principled people. While he was chairman of the department, he had his eye out to the future, encouraging his colleagues’ research and publication, urging participation in the governance of the University where appropriate, and generously sharing ideas that he knew he could not fully develop in one lifetime. He felt strongly that the University needed a full-fledged history, and that the early history of New Brunswick was a rich and fertile field for productive research. With others, he negotiated the establishment of Acadiensis as a focus for the developing field of Atlantic Regional History, and he participated regularly in regional meetings to encourage research and writing. Personally, I will never forget the collegial and stimulating discussions around a pot of bad tea that highlighted the end of many work days in the Department’s Common Room. When Murray was present, “shop-talk” took on new meaning, and we all learned what a treat it must have been for his students to discover the past from a master.

A few months ago, I visited Murray in the Veteran’s Health Centre and we had a marvelous chat reminiscent of years ago. The conversation turned to the Loyalist founders of the province, and I asked him, echoing Esther Clark Wright, “How do you define a Red Tory?” I had an ulterior motive, for I had always thought of Murray as an exemplar of that now almost forgotten tradition. He gave it some thought and then said in that pithy way that was his gift: “Red Tories believed that government can do things.” That was it. I found that answer profound. More than that. I believed that it provided a glimpse of Murray Young as a person and as a historian. Here was a man from the Loyalist settlements of the Nashwaak, whose forebears carried the banner of Tory service to the public, who himself had run for public office as a CCFer (the epitome of the idea that government can do things), who wrote histories about people who believed that collectively, humans can do things, and who practiced what he preached as a member of the University community.

Murray lived a long and rich life. We celebrate it while thanking his wife Mary and their three children for sharing him with us. His legacy lives in his writing, which conveys his optimistic view of human nature and his belief that the arc of history bends toward progress.

Stephen Patterson was a longtime colleague of Murray Young. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at UNB.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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1 Response to Stephen Patterson reflects on Murray Young, 1922-2017

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of February 4, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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