Western University Physics adn AstronomyWestern Science

Physics during WWII and beyond

The war brought about big changes in the Physics Department, as it became involved in a research program on radar which remained secret until after the end of the war. Many of the following details are gleaned from papers and documents left by Dr. Dearle (Dearle, 1948).

On 1 December 1939, Dr. Dearle, along with representatives of Toronto, Queens, McGill and McMaster, went to Ottawa for a meeting called by Dr. R.W. Boyle, Director of the National Research Council's Division of Physics and Electrical Engineering. It was a peculiar meeting, since Dr. Boyle had been sworn to secrecy about radar, and could only "talk around" the subject, saying nothing about the exact nature of the development nor just what it was he was seeking from these university representatives.

Nevertheless, this was enough to set things in motion, and very shortly the London Association for War Research was established, which included a number of prominent London citizens, in addition to members of research teams in medicine and physics. Early in 1940 the Association sent a memorandum to NRC, offering to develop "a portable device which can be used to automatically establish the co-ordinates of a distant object", which would require "sensitive receiving equipment for detecting the reflected energy" from high frequency waves. Unaware of its discovery, Western was offering to invent radar! In its startled reply, NRC suggested that "It would be wise to make modifications in your application, as the outline of the proposed research is really a brief statement of a project on which a very large proportion of the research facilities of Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. are and have been working for some years."

The Department moved very quickly, and by January 1940 it had added fourth-year courses in "Radio" and "Vacuum Tube Theory and Practice" so that it could turn out students who could enter the radar services quickly. By the next summer five students had already gone overseas, and the Department was running the first of several training programs for radio technicians, taken by about 400 servicemen over the next few years.

By November, 1940, Western was selected by NRC as one of three or four Canadian universities to join in an intensive radar research program. Under the direction of Dr. Dearle, and with the enthusiasm and skill of Gar Woonton, who was sent to the United States for special training, the Department converted itself into a laboratory to study the radiation and detection of centimetre wavelength waves. At first the Western research was focused on antenna radiation patterns. That winter the tests on antenna patterns were carried out first by dragging equipment on a sled (borrowed from one of the professor's children) around the University campus, and then the transmissions from the Science Building were monitored in a cold, unheated, green shed, via a variety of antennas mounted on its roof. Later the research turned to the investigation of crystal diodes as detectors of UHF waves (Woonton, 1978).

Manpower was in very short supply when, in 1940, a gray-haired woman walked into the Department, asking if she could be of some help. This was the Department's introduction to Elizabeth Laird (Toronto, BA, 1896; Bryn Mawr, PhD, 1901), one of the most remarkable individuals in the Department's history to date. Dr. Laird was born in Owen Sound in 1874, and lived at various places throughout Ontario where her father, a Methodist minister, had charges. She completed secondary school at the London Collegiate Institute, and then attended the University of Toronto where she graduated in 1896 with the Gold Medal in Mathematics and Physics. Following her PhD from Bryn Mawr in 1901 she joined the staff of the Physics Department at Mount Holyoke College, and two years later was named Professor and Head of the department, a position she held until her "retirement" to London in 1940. Her offer of help was quickly accepted, and she became an active member of the radar research team, working without remuneration (and taking her turn making measurements in the unheated 'green shed'). In 1945 her position in the Department was formally recognized with an appointment as Honorary Professor. She continued an active research program, including the supervision of several MSc students on the biological effects of microwave radiation, until her second retirement in 1953 at the age of 78. Dr. Laird continued to actively participate in departmental colloquia and other scientific meetings until shortly before her death in 1969 at the age of 94. She was recognized with an honorary DSc by the University of Toronto in 1927, and by an LLD from Western in 1954. In 1970 the Physics Department recognized this remarkable woman with the establishment of the annual Elizabeth Laird Memorial Lecture.

The end of the war brought a flood of veterans to the university, more than doubling the university enrolments between 1944-45 and 1946-47. In 1947, Gar Woonton and Dr. Dearle set up a new Radio Physics option for 3rd and 4th year students in the Mathematics and Physics Program. This was a most successful innovation, attracting large numbers of war veterans whose contact with radio and radar during the war gave them an interest in this new field. The program attracted many excellent students during the time it was offered (it last appeared in the 1963-64 calendar).

The end of the war also brought changes in graduate studies in the University and the Department. Not only did numbers increase, but new degrees and a new Faculty of Graduate Studies arose starting in 1947, largely at the behest of the new President, Dr. George Edward Hall. In 1947 the Physics Department graduated eight students with the new degree of Master of Science, in place of the previous MA degree. Plans were also initiated to establish PhD programs in the university, and by 1954 the Physics Department graduated its first PhDs.

At the start of 1945 there were still only five faculty members in the Department, with an average age of just under 50 (not counting Elizabeth Laird), and after the intensive work of the previous five years it must also have been a rather tired faculty. Starting in 1945, the Department began hiring new teaching staff. Of course, these were in short supply, so many people were hired as Instructors with only bachelor or master degrees, often teaching full loads while working on MSc or PhD degrees. Over a period of five years from 1945 to 1949 the staff doubled from 5 to 10; new arrivals included E. Harold Tull [1945-1966] (Western, MSc, 1945); John H. Blackwell [1947-1962] (Western, MSc, 1947, PhD, 1952); Ralph W. Nicholls [1948-1965] (Imperial College, PhD, 1951), Eric Brannen [1949-1987] (McGill, PhD, 1948), and Peter J. Sandiford [1946-1951] (Toronto, PhD, 1952). Very well liked by the students, Peter Sandiford was at Western all too briefly. He left in 1951 to work in the research division of the Ontario Hydro Commission, and eventually went on to become Professor of Transportation in the McGill Business School, where the computer laboratory has been named in his memory (Nicholls, 1999).

Some of the graduates from this period went on to prominent careers in science. I remember R.L. Allen telling me that he sometimes asked the students in the class to suggest questions for the final exam in the 4th year course in electricity and magnetism which he taught (I think some of their mark was based on the quality of the questions). This led to difficulties for R.L. in 1946 when one of the students provided questions which were too difficult for the instructor, let alone the others in the class. The student's name was J. David Jackson (MIT, PhD, 1949; now emeritus professor of Physics, University of California, Berkeley), who went on to a very distinguished career, and, amongst graduate students, notoriety, as the author of Classical Electrodynamics, which has provided problems to confound several generations of graduate students (and the occasional instructor!). Western recognized Dr. Jackson with an Honorary D.Sc. in 1989. Recently Dr. Jackson has very generously endowed a graduate scholarship in the Department in memory of his parents, as well as two undergraduate science scholarships, named in honour of R.L. Allen and Gar Woonton.

Dr. Jackson won a gold medal in physics in 1946. That year a second gold medal winner was Donald M. Hunten (McGill, PhD, 1950), who graduated in the Chemistry and Physics program. He is now Regents Professor, Department of Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona, and an international authority on planetary atmospheres.

In 1948 John H. Chapman (McGill, PhD, 1951; 1921-1979) graduated with a B.Sc. from Western (a member of the first class to graduate in the Radio Physics option), and went on to an illustrious career in Ottawa, and has often been referred to as "the father of the Canadian space program." In particular, from 1958-71, Dr. Chapman played a key role in initiating and directing the hugely successful Alouette/ISIS scientific earth satellite program, and was assistant deputy minister for the Canadian space program in the 1970s. Innes K. MacKenzie (UBC, PhD, 1953) was another 1948 Radio Physics graduate (also MSc, 1949, Western). He went on to become the first Chairman of Physics at the University of Guelph (i.e., when it became a university).

In 1949 two gold medals were awarded. One, for Mathematics and Physics, was won by Parker Alford (Princeton, PhD, 1954), who returned to Western later as Department Chairman (see below). The other, for Radio Physics, was won by George Harrower (McGill, PhD, 1952), who went on to a career in radio astronomy at Queen's University. He served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science (64-69) and then as Academic Vice-Principal (69-76) at Queens before going to Lakehead University to serve as President from 1976 until 1984.

Space on campus was also in short supply after the war, and the University initiated a building program and a fund-raising campaign in late 1945. By April 1947, over $2.5 million had been raised, and almost immediately the Natural Science Building was extended with the addition of a two-storey plus basement addition across the north ends of the existing wings, providing badly needed laboratory space for Chemistry, Physics and Zoology (Talman and Talman, pp.181-182).

By 1949 Dr. Dearle had been Head of the Department for 30 very important years in the history of the Department, overseeing its development from a department with a single professor to a growing department with a promising future in graduate studies and research. He had led the department's war-time research program, for which he was honoured with an M.B.E. ("Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire"); in 1944 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Dr. Dearle decided that it was time to pass the leadership of the Department on to a younger physicist, while he would remain on staff as a Research Professor. He remained with the Department until his retirement in 1958. In 1960 the Physics Department honoured him by renaming the Physics Gold Medal the "Raymond Compton Dearle Gold Medal in Physics." The University recognized him with an honorary LLD in 1963; he died in 1970 at the age of 80.