While in the master's program in engineering at McGill, Bott floundered in trying to decide on the general direction of his career. Thirty years later, Bott was asked to deliver a sermon at Harvard's Memorial Chapel. As he discussed the biblical passage of Eli, the wise man who counseled the young Samuel (1 Samuel 3: 3-6, 8-10), he reflected on the pivotal moment in his life that launched his mathematical career. His description of his own Eli deserves to be read in the original:
And so when I saw the two readings we just heard juxtaposed in a Scripture Service, I could not resist them. For they are appropriate to all of us, whether called to high causes or to lowly ones. And they are maybe especially appropriate to the young people of today in their search of their destiny.
For surely there never has been a time when our young people have been given such freedom and therefore such responsibility to find this destiny.
But how are we to know where we are called? And how are we to know who is calling us? These are questions beyond a mathematician's ken. There are some who seem to have perfect pitch in these matters. There are many more who might think that they have. But with most of us, it is as it was with Samuel, and we are then truly blessed to have an advisor such as Eli. He stands for all of us Teachers as an example. For apart from communicating our call to our students, we should try and help them above all to discern theirs.
I well remember my Eli. He was the Dean of the Medical School at McGill and I approached him for help in entering the medical school there, when in 1945 the atomic bomb unexpectedly put an end to the war and to my four-month old career in the Canadian Infantry.
The Army very wisely decided to get rid of such green recruits as soon as possible, and so we all again found ourselves quite unexpectedly in charge of our own lives. I had graduated in engineering earlier that year but had already decided against that career.
The Dean greeted me very cordially and assured me that there was a great need for technically trained doctors. But, he said, seating me next to him, first tell me a little about yourself. Did you ever have any interest in botany, say, or biology? Well, not really, I had to admit. How about chemistry -- Oh, I hated that course. And so it went. After a while he said, ``Well, is it maybe that you want to do good for humanity?'' And then, while I was coughing in embarrassment, he went on, ``Because they make the worst doctors.''
I thanked him, and as I walked out of his door I knew that I would start afresh and with God's grace try and become a mathematician.