The Hall

James Milton Ham 1920–1997

I was born in the tiny village of Coboconk, Ontario, in 1920. I studied electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. After earning my Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952, I returned to the University as a faculty member. My time there would span many years—and see me take on many different roles.

My main area of research was feedback control systems—an essential aspect of electrical engineering. I wanted to push Canada to the forefront in this field. I helped create the International Federation of Automatic Control, and initiated the National Research Council’s Associate Committee of Automatic Control.

My career advanced quickly. I chaired the University’s Department of Electrical Engineering. I served as Dean, first of the Faculty of Applied Science, and then of the School of Graduate Studies. Eventually I became the University’s President. During my time as President, universities were pressured with tight budgets and expectations to become professional schools. In the face of this challenge, I advocated for the importance of liberal arts education, and bolstered the University’s research capabilities.

In the mid-1970s, I chaired the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines. This was prompted by news that miners from Elliot Lake, Ontario, were developing lung cancer and silicosis at an alarming rate. The final report, known as the Ham Commission, established workers’ right to be involved in occupational health and safety, to know about on-the-job hazards, and to refuse unsafe work.

From leading the field in control and automation systems, to shaping the structure of university education, and to protecting workers, my life’s work has benefited Canadians in many ways.

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