Dr. James Ferris MacLaren, P.Eng. (1892-1962)
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By The Late Dr. James W. MacLaren, P.Eng.

Insisting on expert knowledge, he led the private sector in environmental engineering.


James F. MacLaren was born in Ingersol, Ontario, on March 8, 1892. He was the eldest of seven children born to James Brodie MacLaren and his wife Celia (nee Ferris). James Brodie MacLaren, with other family members, shared in a cheese production enterprise in Ingersol. This enterprise would fail; so did many other small family businesses of the day during the depression years between 1893 and 1896. As senior son, James F. MacLaren would leave school at an early age to work and contribute to the ongoing support of his family. MacLaren was in good company in this duty. A similar boyhood fate confronted Sir Adam Beck (1857-1925), Thomas Doherty (1843-1916) and other early worthies, who are acknowledged in this collection.


The Dominion of Canada was constitutionally established by the British North America Act of 1867. “The Dominion after 1867 moved forward from independence in internal matters to independence in such external affairs as tariffs, diplomacy and the decisions of war and peaceā€¦. More immediately, in America, the founding of the Dominion, a solid band of self-governing territory stretching from ocean to ocean, stabilized the relations between British North America and the United States” (Palmer 1957). The youth James F. MacLaren acted as if he had caught an image of his place in the new vast Dominion.

After leaving school at an early age, he traveled to southern Alberta to work with a survey crew setting out land parcels. He eventually returned east, where he was introduced to and came to place high value on expert knowledge in the current state of engineering art at the time. This came about when he found work as a draftsman at the City of Toronto Waterworks. There, he worked under the direction of an engineer from New York, Alan Hazen. Hazen, with his advanced specialized knowledge, had been hired by the City of Toronto to design the original Slow Sand Filter Plant for supply of potable water to Toronto. MacLaren was subsequently employed as a plant operator at the new City of Toronto Slow Sand Filter Plant.

World War I temporarily deferred his formal education. He left Toronto to join the Canadian Army in 1915. He served overseas from 1915 to 1918, initially with the 81st and then with the First Battalion of the Canadian Army. During his service, he was field-promoted to the rank of major, having been awarded the Military Cross and Bar in recognition of his courage while serving in France.

Education and Training

After the war, he rejoined the City of Toronto Waterworks in various practical capacities. In 1920, he married Dorothy Wade of Sarnia, with whom he raised one son, James Wade MacLaren. During the 10 years following the war, he studied for and successfully passed the examinations leading to accreditation as a professional engineer with the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario.

In 1929, he left engineering in the public sector for employment in the private sector. He joined the John H. Inglis Company as a shop foreman and engineer in the company pump division. He left Inglis in 1932 to join the consulting engineering firm of Gore, Nasmith and Storrie, Toronto. He rose from design engineer to partner by 1934.

During the next 16 years, he was associated with major water and sewage works programs in Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax and St. John. He acted as the major municipal infrastructure consultant to Wartime Housing Ltd. during World War II. He captained the design of the flood control system for the Etobicoke-Mimico Conservation Authority and undertook the engineering aspects of the National Capital Plan for the Government of Canada,
as prepared by Jacques Greber of Paris, France.

In 1950, he left the firm of Gore, Nasmith and Storrie to establish his own practice, James F. MacLaren Associates. Here, he and his associates undertook the design of expanded waterworks facilities for the new municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. They also designed and commissioned Canada’s first metropolitan-scale secondary sewage treatment plant, the Humber Wastewater Collection and Treatment System for Toronto.

Major works of a similar nature were completed for the municipality of Metropolitan Winnipeg, the City of Ottawa and the Ontario Water Resources Commission. Throughout this interval, the value he placed on expert knowledge was evident. This was expressed through financial assistance to his employees to pursue graduate engineering studies in Canada and abroad.

MacLaren was continuously active in his support of professional engineering. In this regard, he served as chairman of the Canadian Institute of Sewage and Sanitation, president of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada and vice-president of the Engineering Institute of Canada.

In 1962, James F. MacLaren was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Queen’s University in Kingston for outstanding service in the supply of safe drinking water and in the provision of waste water control to Canadian municipalities. His firm was incorporated in 1962 to provide recognition to his younger associates, including his son. He died in December 1962, while still serving as chairman of the board of the newly incorporated practice.

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