About Lester B. Pearson

Lester B. Pearson and John Fitzgerald Kennedy

To follow on from our recent articles about Pearson International Airport in Toronto, we thought it would be a good time to have a look at exactly who Lester B. Pearson was and why his name was given to such a prestigious airport.

Lester Bowles Pearson was born on the 23rd April 1897 in Newtonbrook in the township of York, Ontario a place which is now a suburb of Toronto. His life encompassed 9 decades and during this time he was a scholar, soldier, statesman, diplomat, and most notably, prime minister of Canada. His most famous achievement was winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his role in resolving the Suez Canal Crisis. His tenure as prime minister ran from 1963 to 1968, a period in which he led two Liberal minority governments.

During his time in government he introduced sweeping changes to the country, including the implementation of the universal health care system, a system of student loans to promote university attendance, the implementation of the Canada Pension Plan, the creation of the Order of Canada, and the creation of the Maple Leaf flag.

Pearson’s Early Life

Lester Pearson was the son of Annie Sarah and Edwin Arthur Pearson, a Methodist minister. He had two brothers: Vaughan Pearson and Marmaduke Pearson, who were similar ages to himself. When he was only an infant his father moved his entire family north to Aurora, Ontario, where he was to be a minister at a local Methodist Church.

Pearson was educated at Hamilton Collegiate Institute and graduated at the age of 16 in 1913. Later in the same year, he enrolled in Victoria College at the University of Toronto where he excelled enough to gain a scholarship to study at St John’s College in Oxford, which he did from 1921 to 1923.
During his education years, Pearson became known as a noted athlete and excelled at rugby union and basketball. Whilst at Oxford University he played ice hockey for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club who went on to win the first Spengler Cup in 1923.

While still in education at Victoria College the first World War broke out and Pearson volunteered as a medical orderly at the University of Toronto Hospital Unit. Later in 1915 he went overseas with the Canadian Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer where he gained the rank of private. Later in the war he received battle commission to the rank of lieutenant.

In 1917, Pearson asked to transfer to the British Royal Flying Corps (Canada had no equivalent at this time) which was granted. In the unit he served as a flying officer until two injuries caused by accidents curtailed his flying career and he was sent home.

After serving in the war, Pearson returned to education where in 1919 he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto. It was after this that he received the scholarship to St John’s College at the University of Oxford, where he studied for two years, receiving a B.A. degree with Second-Class honours in modern history, followed by an M.A.

After leaving Oxford he returned to Toronto and began teaching history at the University of Toronto.

Personal Life

In 1925, Lester married Maryon Moody who’d been studying at the University of Toronto in which he taught. The two of them had one son, called Geoffrey, and a daughter, called Patricia. Maryon supported Lester throughout his life and was always at his side during his political career.
Political Aspirations

In 1927, Lester took up a role in the Department of External Affairs and so began his lifelong dalliance with politics. R. B. Bennett, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, saw talent in the young, idealistic man and encouraged, Lester to pursue politics further by placing him on two major government inquiries.

In 1935, Pearson was assigned to the High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom. He spent the majority of the Second World War in the UK as second-in-command to High Commissioner Vincent Massey. After the war ended in 1945, Lester became the Canadian Ambassador to the United States.
By the late 1940s, Pearson’s political stock was on the rise and in 1948, Prime Minister King appointed Pearson to the role of Secretary of State for External Affairs, a role he held until the party lost power in 1957.

Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize

It was during his last few years as Secretary of State for External Affairs that Pearson really became a noted and respected politician, with his role in the Suez Crisis being the pinnacle of his achievements. His role in brokering peace between the two sides and preventing a potential World War won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

Prime Minister

After the Liberal government lost the election in 1957, Pearson became opposition party leader in 1958. Unfortunately, the Liberal Party was soundly defeated in the election of 1958 and lost over half their seats. Despite the loss, he remained opposition party leader and in 1962, with the help of 30 Social Credit MP’s, he led his party to power in a minority government.

During his time as Prime Minister, Person implemented many liberal policies, such as creating a universal health care, implementing the Canada Pension Plan, and the creation of the Canada Student Loans scheme. On top of this, he instigated the creation of a new national flag, the Maple Leaf, and brought about the 40-hour working.

Retirement and Death

In 1967 Lester Pearson announced that he was retiring from politics and he stepped down as Prime Minister of Canada. The remainder of his years were dedicated to lecturing in history and politics at Carleton University as well as writing his memoirs.

In 1970, Pearson was diagnosed with a brain tumour and he underwent surgery to have it removed. Although the surgery was a success, by 1972 the cancer had returned and spread to his liver. Pearson collapsed into a coma and was pronounced dead on the 27th of December 1972 in his home in Ottawa.