Western University Physics adn AstronomyWestern Science

Physics 1949 to 1960 - The Growth of Research and Graduate Studies in Physics - Donald Misener

One of the applicants for Head of the Department was Austin Donald Misener [1949-1960] (Toronto, MA, 1934; Cantab PhD, 1938). Amongst Dr. Dearle's papers there is a handwritten letter from Dr. Misener to Dr. Dearle dated May 2 1949 in which he expresses his disappointment that the President seems to have "someone in mind who is a bit more 'colourful' than I appear to be"; he goes on to point out some 'colourful' aspects of his own career, wondering "if it might be wise to arrange a personal interview with the President?" Attached to this letter is a handwritten note from President Hall: "I like Misener's persistence and the way he has restated his case. He must be Irish! Our chat on the 12th should be interesting." Evidently Dr. Hall must have found this 'chat' persuasive, for Dr. Misener was appointed to the position, and took it up in the same year.

Figure 9
Part 1 (of 4) of a group photograph taken at the front of the Science Building (i.e., today's Physics and Astronomy Building) in November 1957. The notation following each name indicates, first, their position in the department at the time the photograph was taken, followed by any later position which they might have had (F - faculty/teaching staff; GS - graduate student; PDF - post-doctoral fellow; S - secretary; T - technical staff). 1 - Dr. Durnford (F), 2 - Dr. Blackwell(F), 3 - Art Fulford (GS,F), 4 - Dr. Fraser(F), 5 - Dr. John MacDonald (Sessional lecturer in Radiological Physics), 6 - Bill Parkinson (GS), 7 - Dr. Alan Beck (PDF, future Head of the Department of Geophysics).


It was a good decision for the Physics Department, and one which apparently had the full support of the staff of the Department. Dr. Misener came to Western after a decade on the staff at the University of Toronto. He brought with him an outstanding record as a researcher in low-temperature physics, practical war-time experience as an engineer working on anti-aircraft gun sights, and a new interest in terrestrial heat flow. He had just been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and his terrestrial heat flow work had resulted in an appointment to an NRC subcommittee on the Physics of the Earth's Interior. He remained as Department Head until 1960, when he resigned to become Director of the Ontario Research Foundation. He was the 7th President of the Canadian Association of Physicists in 1950-51 (for more details on the life of Dr. Misener, see the obituary by Nicholls, 1996).

During this decade, about half the research in the Department was in radio physics, stemming directly or indirectly from the war research of the 1940s. However, Dr. Misener's arrival also led to the development of a research group in geophysics. The most important member of this group was Robert James Uffen [1950-61] (Toronto, BASc, 1949, MA, 1950; Western, PhD, 1952), who came to the Department in 1950, and like so many others at the time was hired as an instructor while also registered as a graduate student. Following his PhD in 1953 he rose rapidly within the University so that by 1959 he was Professor and Head of the newly established Geophysics Department. In 1965 he was appointed Dean of the new Faculty of Science, and in 1966 he left Western to become first Vice-Chairman and then Chairman of the Defence Research Board. From 1969 to 1971 he was chief scientific advisor to Cabinetbefore going to Queens University as Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science.

Charles M. Carmichael [1952-1964] (Western, MSc, 1947, PhD, 1960) was another young staff member who was doing his PhD in this group; he transferred to the Geophysics Department in 1964. From 1952 to 1957 Charlie Carmichael was the one and only ‘preceptor' in the history of the Department, apparently a title dreamed up by Misener to describe his job looking after the undergraduate laboratories. Dr. John Blackwell had started as an instructor in 1947, and worked on the theoretical aspects of heat flow problems. In 1962 he moved to Mathematics, and became the first head of the new Department of Applied Mathematics when it was formed in 1967. It should be noted that both Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Carmichael, as well as several other faculty in the Mathematics/Applied Mathematics and Geophysics departments, had appointments as honorary lecturers in Physics and regularly taught physics courses for a number of years. Finally, Dr. Alan Beck was in the Department briefly as a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Uffen, before becoming a faculty member in the new Geophysics Department. He followed Dr. Uffen as Head of Geophysics, and remained in that position until his retirement (and the end of Geophysics as an independent department) in 1994.

Figure 10
Part 2 of November 1957 photograph: 1 - Harold Tull (F), 2 - Dr. Elizabeth Laird (F), 3 - Dr. Brannen (F), 4 - Charles Carmichael (F&GS); 5 - Heinrich Froelich(GS,F), 6 - Garth Olde (GS), 7 - Ed Reeves (GS), 8 - David Robinson (GS), 9 - Pat Johnson (T), 10 - Margaret McNulty (S), 11 - Gerry Hébert (GS,F)[1964-1966].


It was with the arrival of Ralph Nicholls in 1948 that atomic and molecular physics became established as a research field at Western. Almost from the beginning this was a very well-funded research program, as a result of a paper which Ralph gave in 1950 at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. His paper on "The excitation mechanism of N2" attracted the attention of the small audience of four, all from Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, with an interest in the implications of Ralph's work for auroral excitation mechanisms. Almost immediately he was offered a $67K contract to build a group to do laboratory auroral work, and the contract was launched with an International Conference on Auroral Physics held at Western on July 1951. The meeting brought a number of prominent physicists to Western, including Hannes Alfvén (Nobel Prize, 1970), Sidney Chapman and Carl Størmer, who were jointly responsible for important theoretical ideas on how the solar wind could cause the aurora, as well as other notables such as Sir Harry Massey and David Bates (later 'Sir') . An amusing sidelight of this meeting is that Ralph Nicholls, who had come from Imperial College with an unfinished PhD, was examined on it in his own office during a break in the conference one afternoon! (Nicholls, 1998)

In the early 1950s Dr. Brannen and Dr. Dearle developed a new research program that stemmed indirectly, if not directly, from the war-time radar research, the use of the racetrack microtron for the generation of sub-millimetre radiation. Several future faculty members did some or all of their graduate research with Dr. Brannen, including Thomas W.W. Stewart [1959-86] (Western, BSc, 1953, MSc, 1955), Harry I.S. Ferguson [1959-83] (Western, BSc, 1951, MSc, 1953, PhD, 1958), J. Arthur Fulford [1957-1989] (Western, BSc, 53, PhD, 1961), and Heinrich R. Froelich [1962-94] (Western, MSc, 1958, PhD, 1962), who continued microtron research into the mid-seventies when he was involved with Dr. McGowan in a project to develop a microtron for radiation therapy. Dr. Brannen extended his interests to shorter wavelengths, and investigated the properties of molecular gas lasers (28-700 microns), as well as studying the absorption of gases, liquids and thin films with these sources.

Figure 11
Part 3 of November 1957 photograph: 1 - Dr. Dearle (F), 2 - Dr. Misener (F), 3 - R.L. Allen (F), 4 - Ram Agarwal (GS), 5 - Peter Manuel (GS, F-Math/Applied Math.), 6 - Nora Dwyer (S), 7 - Meryl Edwards (GS), 8 - Dr. Wehlau (F - Math/Astronomy), 9 - Dennis McConnell (GS), 10 - Ed Thompson (T), 11 - R.C. Murty (GS, F), 12 - Mike Watson (GS), 13 - David Longlois (T).


Donald R. Hay [1958-1985] (Western, BSc, 1946, MSc, 1947; McGill, PhD, 1952) returned to Western in 1958 and established a new research program in lower atmospheric physics, particularly micrometeorology, which he continued until his death in 1985. A bit later, Rama C. Murty [1961-1993] (Western, PhD, 1962) also started research in the same field, studying atmospheric electricity.

With so many young staff (between 1950 and 1955 over half the staff were under 35) and most of them ex-servicemen, it is not surprising that quite a number of stories of high jinks date from those days. I will confine myself here to just one of these stories, in which an instructor and his class were trapped in the classroom by colleagues who tied the two doors together on the outside with a stout rope. This problem was solved by pulling the pins from the doors; the instructor triumphantly marched out of the room carrying the door just as the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds came down the hall. This took place in about 1961, but I have learned that it was a reprise of a very similar prank which took place in the same room and with the same lecturer over a decade earlier, in about 1950.

By the time Dr. Misener left in 1960 to take up the directorship of the Ontario Research Foundation, the Department had grown to 14 faculty members, and had a strong and active research and graduate program. The Department also experienced a similar growth in physical space. In 1958 the Biological and Geological Sciences Building was constructed, and when the departments left, the bulk of the Science Building was occupied by the Physics and Chemistry Departments, and it became known as the Physics and Chemistry Building.

Figure 12
Part 4 of November 1957 photograph: 1 - Dr. Nicholls (F), 2 - Dr. Donald Richard Stevenson (F)[1957-1959]; 3 - Dr. Uffen (F), 4 - Fred Zelonka (GS), 5 - Reginald Reynolds (Demonstrator), 6 - Del Rumbold (T), 7 - John Stockhausen (GS), 8 - Gord Graham (T), 9 - Farouk Aziz Khan (GS).


Dr. Misener's departure created a brief "inter-regnum", before the arrival of his replacement. In July 1960, Bob Uffen (the Head of Geophysics) was appointed Acting Head of Physics. Having been appointed Vice-Principal and Principal-Designate of University College, he resigned as Acting Head of Physics in February 1961. From then until November 1961, according to Professor Allen, "the staff of the department carried on as a committee of the whole under the chairmanship of R.L. Allen (Allen, 1965)."