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Who the heck were Dorothy and Izaak Killam?

The wealthy couple donated millions to health, education and arts

Take a walk down University Avenue sometime. There’s one name you’ll notice that shows up on several buildings on the street: Killam. 

Starting at Dalhousie University, you’ll see the Killam Memorial Library looming on campus. Walk further down the road and you’ll come across one of Halifax’s most important buildings: The Izaak Walton Killam hospital, a.k.a. the IWK. Peppered on the street are stories upon stories of Killam apartment buildings. 

All these landmarks stretched across Halifax are linked to Izaak and Dorothy Killam, whose fortune has helped save lives, fund education and support arts across Canada. 

Their story 

Dorothy Killam was a baseball-loving, diamond-collecting woman with a razor-sharp mind for business. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Dorothy met Izaak in 1921 at a party in Montreal. They were married soon after. 

Izaak was born in 1885 in Yarmouth, N.S. He built a successful empire in Canadian and Latin American investments. He invested in such industries as utilities (companies similar to Nova Scotia Power today), publishing, construction, and pulp and paper. During his life, he was thought to be the richest man in Canada.  

While Izaak was known to be a private man, it was Dorothy who added zest to the family name, investing in Montreal’s baseball team and the Metropolitan Opera Association (a.k.a. The Met). 

Izaak died in 1955 on a fishing trip, leaving Dorothy with his estate – all $40 million of it. 

Not only did she double the fortune in investments, Dorothy also used it to change the landscape of Canadian learning.  

Shortly before her death in 1965, Dorothy met with Dalhousie president Henry Hicks to discuss building the Killam Memorial Library, a space where she hoped students might spend quite a lot of time. While few students would consider the Killam Library to be beautiful now, Hicks spent time going over the design of Dorothy’s gift, excited to use Brazilian rosewood in the interior panelling.  

In this image: The Killam Library.
Construction of the Killam Memorial Library began in 1966 and was completed in 1971. Photo by Sam Gillett

Never-ending gifts to academia 

The Killam Library wasn’t Dorothy’s biggest gift to academia.  

In 1965, she set up the Killam Trusts fund scholarships which gifts massive scholarships to high-achieving graduate and postgraduate students from five Canadian universities.  

“The Killam scholarships are still considered extremely prestigious,” says Marty Leonard, the Dean of Dalhousie’s Faculty of Doctoral Studies.  

Students from Dalhousie University, The University of Calgary, University of Alberta, The University of British Columbia, and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University are all eligible to become Killam Trusts scholarship laureates. As of today, there are over 7,000 students who have won the scholarship. 

Leonard says that the Killam Trusts scholarship has “really made a difference in [the] career trajectory” of all students who have won. 

Dorothy also used her money to further the reach and generosity of the Canada Council for the Arts. After she died, Dorothy left donations to the Canada Council to establish the Killam Program, a part of the Killam Trusts scholarships. The Killam program awards five prizes each year to Canadian researchers in the fields of humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences and engineering. 

Izaak’s business smarts raised the funds for Dorothy’s masterstroke of innovative investing and generosity, which was focused on students and learning.  

“She just had amazing foresight,” Leonard says. “She realised that investing in students would change the landscape of the country.”  

Correction: “Who the heck?” is a rotating history column in the Gazette’s Arts & Lifestyle section, reporting on the namesakes of buildings and institutions on campus and around the city. Have an idea on who we should feature next? Contact arts@dalgazette.com.

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