Born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Saywell received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of British Columbia and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He taught at the University of Toronto from 1954 to 1962. He joined York University in 1963 and was Dean of Arts at York from 1963 to 1973. Saywell retired from all teaching responsibility at York University in 1999. He wrote 13 books. His last, "Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973," was published in 2008.
Work as Historian
Saywell was the editor of two journals: "Canadian Historical Review," from 1957 to 1963; and "Canadian Annual Review" from 1960 to 1979. Among his books were "The Office of Lieutenant-Governor: A Study in Canadian Government and Politics," which won the Delancey K. Jay Prize at Harvard University. "Just Call Me Mitch: The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn," published in 1991, won the Floyd Chalmers Award for the best book on Ontario history. His 2002 study of the Supreme Court of Canada, titled "The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism," won the John W. Dafoe Prize for "distinguished writing on Canada and/or Canada’s place in the world." He also interpreted Canadian, British and European history for thousands of high-school students across Ontario through close to a dozen textbooks with his friend John Ricker.
- The McInnes incident in British Columbia, 1897-1900 : together with a brief survey of the Lieutenant-Governor's constitutional position in the Dominion of Canada, (1950)
- The Office of Lieutenant-Governor (1957)
- The Canadian Journal of Lady Aberdeen (1960)
- Quebec 70: A Documentary Narrative (1971)
- Lord Minto's Canadian Papers (1983)
- Making the law: the courts and the constitution (1991, ISBN 0-7730-5098-1)
- Just call me Mitch: the life of Mitchell F. Hepburn (1991, ISBN 0-8020-3467-5)
- Canada: pathways to the present (1994, ISBN 0-7737-5681-7)
- The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (2002, ISBN 0-8020-3751-8).
- John Tupper Saywell fonds
- Toronto Star obituary 
- Toronto Globe and Mail obituary Frenetic life didn't hinder work of historian
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