Western University Physics adn AstronomyWestern Science

History of the Department of Physics and Astronomy up to 1999

PAB 1922


This history is based on a recently published web paper: D. R. Moorcroft, A History of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario, Physics in Canada, Vol. 55 No. 4, pp 159-176, July/August 1999. It now includes information up to the year 2003.

In addition to Don's work, we are beginning to collect the history of prominent figures from our past.

Please view the table of contents in the left menu.

The Department of Physics and the Department of Astronomy were amalgamated to form a single department in July, 1996. The history of the present department is thus a combination of the history of physics and of astronomy at the University of Western Ontario. The emphasis will be on detailing the earlier years in the history of the Department(s), which are increasingly difficult to recover; the present and recent past are treated more briefly, being better left for more detailed consideration at some time in the future.

Background - The University of Western Ontario

The University of Western Ontario started life as The Western University, created in 1878 as an outgrowth of Huron College, the Anglican theological college in London, largely because of the vision and influence of the Right Rev. I. Hellmuth, Second Bishop of Huron. It was a financially shaky start; although the first classes in the Faculty of Arts were offered in 1881, they were soon discontinued, and it was only in 1895 that a couple of professors were hired to supplement the efforts of the Huron College staff, and lectures started up again. However, even by 1905 the total revenue of Western was only $3,500.00 (Tamblyn, 1938). On several occasions the Provost and President of the time, Dr. James, had to go in person to local citizens for donations to make it possible for salaries for the month to be met.

In 1908, the university broke with the Anglican Church and through a provincial act became a civic institution with a Senate responsible for academic policy and a Board of Governors to control finances. This same act empowered the City of London to make annual grants to Western, making it the first Canadian university to be partially controlled and financed by the local municipality. In spite of these changes the university continued to operate on a shoestringbudget, and by 1912-13 there were still only 9 faculty members in the Faculty of Arts, including the university President.

Up to this point the university had rented space in several buildings around the city, but by 1916 the Board of Governors had acquired property for a future campus, to the derision of many who considered it to be ridiculously far from the city. The construction of new buildings was still just a dream, as the provincial government refused to consider financial support of any university other than the University of Toronto. Then in 1920 the Cody Royal Commission was appointed by the provincial government to investigate higher education in Ontario; amongst other things it recommended that although the University of Toronto would remain the provincial university, Western and Queens should be treated as regional universities and be given provincial grants, both for capital and current accounts. This was implemented, and resulted in a grant to Western of $800,000 for construction of new buildings. This was supplemented by a grant of $250,000 from the City of London and another $100,000 from the County of Middlesex. In 1922 the construction of the new campus was under way, and by the summer of 1924 the new arts and science buildings were open for use. In 1999 The University of Western Ontario remains on the same campus, but greatly expanded in numbers of students, faculty, staff and buildings.

Campus of The University of Western Ontario 1933
The campus as it was in 1933. From left to right the three buildings are the heating plant, University College, and the Science Building, all completed in 1924.

Next we turn to the faculty structure within which the sciences have found themselves at Western. The sciences started out in the Faculty of Arts, although it was not until long after the start of the Faculty in 1881 that the first science departments were established. Mathematics might be said to have existed since the appointment of Professor Patterson as professor of Mathematics in 1906, but it wasn't until 1915 that departments of Physics, Biology and Chemistry were established, followed by Geology in 1919. Over the next two decades science became an increasingly important part of the Faculty of Arts, so that by 1943 the faculty was renamed the Faculty of Arts and Science.

The president of the University from 1946 to 1967, Dr. George Edward Hall, was enthusiastic about establishing a college system at Western, modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. That started in 1950 with the establishment of a new position of Principal of University College (the name given to the arts building of 1924) within the Faculty of Arts and Science. In 1960 Middlesex College was constructed as a second college, devoted only to humanities and social sciences, while University College continued as a college of arts and science. In 1965 the sciences had grown to such an extent that a separate College of Science was created, administratively centred in the newly constructed Natural Science Centre. The last step in this college phase of the university's development occurred in 1966 with the construction of Talbot College. Even as Talbot College was being opened, it was apparent that the college system had failed to work as envisaged, and committees were meeting to disband the colleges as administrative units in favour or discipline-oriented faculties. As of 1 July 1968, the Faculty of Arts and Science was reconstituted into four faculties of Arts, Music, Science and Social Science. The other colleges continued for a one-year transitional period, but the College of Science changed into the Faculty of Science on 1 July 1968, and that faculty structure continues to the present day.

At the departmental level the story of physics and astronomy at Western is a complex one, because over the years those disciplines have been associated with various departments, as new departments were created, and more recently, as departments have been amalgamated. Although many of these associations will be mentioned in more detail in the remainder of this history, it may be helpful to have an overview of the chronology, and that is given in the following table.

1906   Mathematics
1915   Separate Physics and Mathematics Departments,
or possibly a joint Physics and Mathematics Department for one year.
1916   Physics Mathematics
1919 Geology    
1922     Mathematics and Astronomy
1958 Geology & Geophysics <== Geophys. Pure & Applied Math. & Astronomy
1959 Geology Geophysics   [Honors Astronomy program introduced
1962     Math.==>  
1964     <==Geophys,  
1966       Astronomy Mathematics
1967         Applied Math. Mathematics
1968     Astro. ==>      
1970     App. M. ==>      
1994 Earth Sciences        
1996   Physics & Astronomy    

Table 1. The chronology of departments at Western which have been connected with physics and astronomy. Arrows in the Physics column indicate transfers of faculty from Physics to other departments. Not shown in this table are the Department of Computer Science (1963-) and the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science (1981-), both of which started life in association with, or as part of, the Department of Mathematics.

Astronomy started in the Mathematics Department. The department's name changed to Mathematics and Astronomy in 1922, but for many years astronomy was represented by only a couple of courses, and it was not until 1959 that the first undergraduate program was introduced. In 1966 Astronomy separated from what since 1958 had been called the Department of Pure and Applied Mathematics and Astronomy and became an independent department. It remained as a Department of Astronomy for 30 years until its amalgamation with the Physics Department in 1996.

Although there is some uncertainty, we will take the birth of the Department of Physics as taking place in 1915 (footnote 1). It remained as a Physics Department until the 1996 amalgamation with Astronomy. During the 1950s and 1960s several new departments were started up, and a number of faculty and students from the Physics Department had important roles in the establishment of those departments. Two faculty members (1958 and 1964), a post-doctoral fellow (1958) and a graduate student (1962) formed the core of the new Geophysics Department, including the heads of that department throughout its 35 years of existence. In the early 1960s two former Physics graduate students and one Physics faculty member joined the Department of Mathematics, and in 1967 became founding members (and, for one of them, head) of the new Department of Applied Mathematics; another faculty member transferred from Physics to Applied Mathematics in 1970. Finally, in 1968 a faculty member transferred from Physics to the still young Astronomy Department. With that overview we are ready to look in more detail, first at Astronomy, and then at Physics.
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