Childhood, education and academic career
Humphrey was born to Frank Humphrey and Nellie Peters on April 30, 1905 in Hampton, New Brunswick. His childhood was touched by tragedy as he lost both his parents to cancer; he also lost one of his arms in an accident while playing with fire. Humphrey attended a boarding school where he endured teasing from other students; it is claimed that this was instrumental in building his character and compassion. Humphrey applied to Mount Allison University at age 15 and was accepted. He transferred to McGill University and lived with his sister Ruth who was a teacher in Montreal. Humphrey graduated from McGill in 1925 where he was awarded a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He promptly enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law at McGill, graduating in 1927 and 1929 respectively. Upon graduation, Humphrey was awarded a fellowship to study in Paris, sailing from Montreal on the RMS Aurania. He met fellow passenger Jeanne Godreau while onboard and they were married in Paris shortly after arriving. Humphrey returned to Montreal after the fellowship to a teaching position as a professor at McGill; he also enrolled in a Master of Law specializing in international law. During the 1930s Humphrey was considered a renaissance man with his interests in education, the arts and humanities, and human rights. While teaching at McGill in the early 1940s, Humphrey met Henri Laugier, a refugee from France who was working on behalf of the Free French. In 1943 Laugier moved to Algeria to teach at the University of Algiers and later became the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1946, Assistant Secretary-General to the United Nations, Henri Laugier, appointed John Peters Humphrey as the first Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, within the United Nations Secretariat. Humphrey was a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After consulting with the executive group of the Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt,
Humphrey prepared the first preliminary draft of what was to become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the night of December 10, 1948, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Declaration, dubbed by Mrs. Roosevelt as “the international Magna Carta of all mankind”.
Career in the United Nations
Humphrey remained with the UN for 20 years. During this period he oversaw the implementation of 67 international conventions and the constitutions of dozens of countries. He worked in areas including freedom of the press, status of women, and racial discrimination. In 1988, on the 40th anniversary of the Declaration, the UN Human Rights award was bestowed on Professor Humphrey. In 1963, he put forth the idea of a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. While the idea was initially received quite positively, it was only after more than thirty years, under Secretary-General Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that the office became a reality.