Western University Physics adn AstronomyWestern Science

Physics to 1939: Raymond Compton Dearle

The first existing record of lectures in physics is from 1895 when F.W. Merchant, the Principal of the London Collegiate Institute, volunteered his services to lecture in Physics at evening classes given at his school. From then until 1915 the only physics courses were a couple of options in the general arts program, but the tentative nature of these offerings is suggested by the story that in 1906 the new professor of mathematics volunteered to teach physics and also "to secure sufficient contributions for the necessary equipment" (Talman and Talman, p 53).

The birth of the physics department was marked by the arrival of Ernest Franklin Barker [1915-19] (Rochester, BA; Michigan, MA, PhD) as the first Professor of Physics. Although the calendar for 1915-16 advertises the first two years of a five year honors course in Mathematics and Physics, there is no record of any registrants before 1919-20. With no funds and little or no laboratory space or equipment it must have been a daunting task to try to establish a program, and in 1919 Dr. Barker resigned to accept a research fellowship at Michigan, where he spent the rest of his professional life, rising through the ranks to professor and Head of the Department of Physics (Allen, 1965).

The physics professorship at Western was then filled by Raymond Compton Dearle [1919-58] (Toronto, MA, 1917, PhD, 1919), who continued as Head of the Department for the next 30 years, until 1949. His energy, scholarship and administrative talents were a dominant factor in the development of the new department. Following completion of his graduate work at the University of Toronto with Professor J.C. McLennan, he was offered a position in McLennan's spectroscopy group, but at the same time he was approached by Western. In spite of the evident difficulties at Western, which that year had only 44 freshmen in the entire faculty of Arts, Dr. Dearle saw the opportunities of the position at Western, and took it up in September 1919 (Gwynne-Timothy, 1978, p.270; Misener, 1971, p.42).

In 1919 the 'Physics Department' was housed in one small, overcrowded "laboratory" in the London Public Health Institute. These conditions soon became impossible, and a barn behind Huron College was converted into an overflow laboratory.

Figure 5
On the left is the London Public Health Institute as it was in November 1956. From 1916 to 1921 the Physics Department occupied the outlined portion of the building. On the right is the old barn behind Huron College which provided extra laboratory space for Physics between 1919 and 1921.

This was an improvement, and also kept Dr. Dearle fit, pedalling his bicycle the two miles between the two buildings. In 1921 the Department moved into the old medical school, and very soon Dr. Dearle was helping to plan the new Sciences Building (now, in 1999, the Physics and Astronomy Building) whose construction began in 1922, and into which all the science departments moved starting in 1924.

Science Building at The University of Western Ontario, 1924
The Science Building in 1924, construction almost complete.

By this time the Physics Department had expanded threefold with the addition of two Instructors, Ray Leroi ("R.L.") Allen [1921-61] (Mount Allison, BA, 1917, MA, 1919) and Miss Willena Foster [1922-49] (Toronto, MA, 1918), both of whom became long-term members of the Department. "R.L." played an important role in the Department for many decades. Although he officially retired in 1961, he continued with a part-time appointment in the Department until 1965, at which time the university honoured him with an honorary degree. "R.L." continued working at Western, including a term as Assistant Dean of Arts, until his 'final' retirement in 1974 after 53 years of service with the University. Miss Foster came to Western from Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. She was responsible for the organization and equipping of the optics laboratory, and throughout the whole of her tenure she gave the lectures in optics (as well as other subjects, as required).

In 1919 the first 3 students registered in Mathematics and Physics. The seminar courses started in 1922-23, and Dr. Dearle gave the first seminar, reporting on Vegard's discovery of the auroral green line (explained a couple of years later by Shrum and McLennan in Toronto). Dr. Dearle gave the first graduate course on "Radiation" in 1923-24, and that year the first two MA degrees in physics were awarded (Allen, 1965).

The faculty increased to four in 1926 with the arrival of Dr. Donald Ainslie [1926-1931], who remained until 1931 when he returned to the University of Toronto. His place was taken by A.M.I.A.W. (Bill) Durnford [1931-1970] (Western, BA, 1925, MA, 1926; Toronto, PhD, 1931). Dr. Durnford was one of the very early graduates from the Western physics program, starting as a freshman in 1921. He joined the faculty following completion of his PhD at Toronto under Prof. McLennan. Bill Durnford carried a heavy teaching load throughout his long career, particularly during the Second World War, when he took additional teaching assignments to allow others to concentrate on radar research. He retired in 1970, and died at the age of 90 in 1994.

Faculty 1933
Physics faculty, 1931-1940, from the 1933 student yearbook. Left to right, with ranks as of 1933: Dr. Dearle, Professor and Head; R.L. Allen, Associate Professor; Willena Foster, Assistant Professor; Bill Durnford, Instructor.

For the next 10 years, until 1941, these four faculty members - Dearle, Allen, Foster and Durnford - carried the department through a very difficult period of reduced salaries and increased student enrolment.

As already indicated, in those days physics students started by registering in a Mathematics and Physics program; they then chose either a mathematics or physics option in their third and fourth years. In 1930 a second combined program was added in Chemistry and Physics, which attracted few but excellent students. According to R.L. Allen (Allen, 1965), during the first 15 years of its existence a higher percentage of its graduates continued to a PhD than in any other program at Western. These two programs continued until the end of the 1950s, when a major restructuring of programs in science took place.

Although not a faculty member during this period, Garnet Alexander Woonton [1940-48] (Western, BA, 1925, MA, 1931) was associated with the Department through the 1930's, and had a profound effect on the future course of the department.
physics 1939 5
Garnet A. Woonton at Western in the 1970s.

Gar Woonton had wide ranging interests and skills. In 1925 he graduated from Western in commerce and economics and won a prize in philosophy. After four years working as a technical assistant with the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, he returned to Western to study physics. Following completion of his MA in 1931 he remained at Western as demonstrator and research assistant in the Physics Department and as research fellow in Physiology for the next eight years. He was primarily responsible for setting up the Department's experimental broadcasting station, VE9BY. According to Woonton (Woonton, 1978) the station "was intended to measure the variation in the height of the ionosphere by a statistical study of reports from listeners. Broadcasts soon became social occasions in which everyone in any way associated with the department participated. The department had always been a friendly place; the broadcasts made it into a close knit family." The station laid the foundation for the radar research at Western during the Second World War, and was the start of radio- and radar-related research in the department which continues up to the present day. Woonton went on to a distinguished career in Physics. He joined the faculty of the Physics Department at Western in 1940 and by 1946 was a Research Professor of Physics. He was lured away to McGill in 1948 to set up the Eaton Electronics Research Lab; in 1955 he became the MacDonald Professor of Physics and Head of the Physics Department at McGill, a position he held until shortly before he left McGill for Laval in 1969 to become the first director of the Centre de Recherches sur les Atomes et les Molécules. Following his retirement in 1973 Gar Woonton returned to Western as Honorary Professor of Physics where he remained until his death in 1980.

Gar Woonton played an active role in the founding of the Canadian Association of Physicists in 1945 (initially called the Canadian Association of Professional Physicists). One of the more important of the planning meetings was held at Western, as was the second annual congress in 1947 (and subsequent congresses in 1953 and 1978). Gar Woonton was the fourth President of the CAP in 1948-49 (Forsyth, 1999; Hay, 1980). He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1950. He received an honorary degree from Western in 1955 (for further details on the life of Gar Woonton, see Hay, 1980).