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Scientists & Thinkers

Leading in science, research and thought

If you ponder the difference between scientists and thinkers, you might say that scientists make the world around us, while thinkers make sense of it.

The thinkers you will read about in the following pages work in fields as diverse as economics and English, and all have had a profound influence in their area of study. Northrop Frye, for example, almost single-handedly established literary criticism as a respected area of study. When we examined the lives of the scientists here, we were struck by how many were first in their field, as in, “developed the first laser” or “built the first G-suit.” We were also impressed with the progress women made in science at U of T in the early part of the 20th century. By 1928 – 25 years after the university awarded its first PhD to a woman – 28 of the 30 doctorates that females earned were in the sciences.

Following the First World War, medical school graduate Davidson Black accepted a teaching post in anatomy at Peking Medical Union College in China. Black had developed an interest in anthropology, and when an expedition was organized to study a site near Peking, he was asked to lead the dig. In 1927, Black (MB 1906, BA 1911 UC, MA 1924, MD 1928, DSc 1930) and his team discovered Peking Man. His work on those remains forms the basis of today’s knowledge of our ancient ancestors.

Regarded as the world’s leading expert on lemmings, Dennis Chitty (BA 1935 UC) was also one of the first researchers to make systematic studies of animal ecology. His work culminated in the Chitty Hypothesis, which states that population growth is halted by the interactions of animals that lead to the genetic selection of those with highly aggressive traits.

Wilbur Franks (1901-1986) was head of RCAF medical research during the Second World War. There, Franks (BA 1924 Victoria, MA 1925, MB 1928) invented a pressure suit allowing pilots to carry out high-speed manoeuvres without blacking out. His “G-suit” was the precursor of the pressure suits worn by today’s astronauts.

Wilfred Bigelow (BA 1935 UC, MD 1938, MS 1949) concentrated his early work at U of T on using cold to protect the heart and brain during surgery. His groundbreaking research led to the creation of the implantable heart pacemaker.

Marian Packham (BA 1949 Victoria, PhD 1954) is a world authority on the biochemistry and physiology of blood platelets and has done pioneering work on using drugs to prevent blood clots. Another grad, Fraser Mustard (MD 1953) is also known for his work on platelets. As the founder of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Mustard has encouraged scientists to become involved in social policy and has actively promoted early childhood education.

One of the most influential proponents of Keynesian economics, John Kenneth Galbraith (BASc 1931) has held sway with prime ministers and presidents for 50 years. But, Galbraith reveals, “I was not, in my college years, well regarded.” Beginning in 1926, he attended the U of T-affiliated Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. Years later, upon receiving an honorary degree, he ran into one of his old Guelph professors, who told him that instead of bestowing the new degree upon him, administrators should be taking away the one he already had.

Universally respected scholar and literary critic Northrop Frye (1912-1991) became famous for his studies of poets, the Bible and Shakespeare. His work is standard study for English literature students around the world. After visiting Toronto in 1929 to take part in a national typing contest, Frye decided to remain and study at Victoria College, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1933. While at U of T and as a graduate student at Oxford, he began formulating his ideas for Fearful Symmetry, his analysis of William Blake’s poetry. He taught at Victoria College from 1939 until his death 52 years later.

The work of Kathleen Coburn (1905-1991) was instrumental in deepening scholarly understanding of the English romantic poet Samuel Coleridge. In 1951 Coburn (BA 1928 Victoria, MA 1930) founded the Coleridge Project, which is still in progress and dedicated to transcribing Coleridge’s 70 personal notebooks.

By the time Marion Hilliard (1902-1958) arrived at medical school in the ’20s, the atmosphere was easier than it had been for women, but still not hospitable. “The girls had to sit in the front row and you could hardly say we were welcomed,” she later wrote, “but we certainly were not outcasts.” A hockey star at U of T, Hilliard (BA 1924 Victoria, MB 1927) later headed the obstetrics and gynecology department of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, where in 1947 she helped develop the Pap test, a simplified procedure for the early detection of cervical cancer.

Bora Laskin (1912-1984) was Canada’s pre-eminent legal mind in labour and constitutional law. Interestingly, Laskin (BA 1933 UC, MA 1936) never practised law; after completing his law education at Harvard University he began a long teaching career which ended at U of T in 1965, the year he was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. He was named to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1970 and became chief justice three years later.

Sir John Cunningham McLennan (1867-1935) was the first student at U of T to receive a doctorate in physics (as well as one of the first three PhDs awarded) and went on to establish the university’s physics department as a world leader in areas ranging from low-temperature physics to spectroscopy. McLennan (BA 1892 UC, PhD 1900) did innovative research in the use of radiation to treat cancer.

Selected for the Canadian astronaut program in 1992, Julie Payette (MASc 1990) was the second female grad into space (Roberta Bondar was the first), when the shuttle Discovery lifted off last May. While completing her engineering studies, the accomplished musician sang with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra Choir.

Following high school, J.J. Robinette (1907-1996) took a year off before attending U of T, not because he wanted a break, but because at 15 he was still a year shy of the required entry age. He was an over-achiever once on campus, but socially awkward. One of the few people he befriended was Lois Walker, his future wife, whom he had first met in Sunday school. During his 62-year career, Robinette (BA 1926 UC), one of Canada’s greatest trial lawyers, was involved in some of the most sensational criminal trials in our history and saved 16 people from the gallows.

J. Tuzo Wilson (1908-1993) received U of T’s first bachelor of arts degree in geophysics (1930 Trinity). Best known for his work on plate tectonics, Wilson was also an international expert on glaciers and the formation of mountains. An adventurer and mountain climber (Mount Tuzo in the Rockies is named for his mother), he was the second Canadian to fly over the North Pole. Wilson taught at U of T from 1946 to 1974 and was principal of Erindale College. His popular writings on China are said to have helped improve relations between the West and the communist nation.

The University of Toronto boasts six Nobel laureates among its grads, a total unequalled by many nations. Perhaps the most famous is Lester B. Pearson, who won the 1957 Peace Prize for his role in negotiating a UN-brokered peace in 1956 following the Suez Canal crisis. Pearson had to wait 38 years after graduating to receive his prize, but James Orbinski (MA 1998) accepted a Nobel prize barely a year after leaving U of T. Last year Orbinski was at the helm of the humanitarian group Médecins sans frontières, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf.

The first U of T recipients were Frederick Banting and John Macleod, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1923. All Canadians think of Banting and Best when they think of insulin. Although the Nobel Institute didn’t name Charles Best (1899-1978) because he was a graduate student during the research, Banting (see “Heroes & Icons“) shared half of his award money with his younger colleague. Best (BA 1921 UC, MA 1922, MB 1925, MD 1932), who gained his spot on the research team after winning a coin toss with another student, later succeeded Macleod as professor of physiology at U of T.

The strength of the math and physics programs at the university can be measured by the fact that they have produced three Nobel laureates: Arthur Schawlow, Bertram Brockhouse and Walter Kohn.

Schawlow (1921-1999) grew up in Toronto during the Depression. Hoping to study engineering but unable to afford tuition, he sought and won a scholarship in math and physics instead. He was only 16 when he arrived at U of T in 1937. Credited with co-inventing the laser, Schawlow (BA 1941 Victoria, MA 1942, PhD 1949) did his earliest work on light spectrums at U of T and won his Nobel Prize for physics in 1981. Schawlow might have bumped into both Brockhouse and Kohn on campus during his tenure.

Brockhouse (MA 1948, PhD 1950) first charted his course toward Stockholm at the low-temperature labs in the physics department after his World War Two service.

Kohn (BA 1945 UC, MA 1946) arrived on campus in 1942 after fleeing the Nazis in his native Austria. Brockhouse and Kohn were co-recipients of the Nobel prize in 1994 and 1998 respectively, Brockhouse for his examination of materials at an atomic level, and Kohn for helping scientists to better understand complex molecules.

Research by Rebecca Caldwell.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Scientists & Thinkers ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Recently I found myself listed as one of the graduates of the university who helped shape the past century. Needless to say, I am delighted. My years at the Ontario Agricultural College [then affiliated with U of T] left me without a sense of close association with the university. My principal impression was derived from a couple of stern scholars who came up to Guelph to preside over the final examinations. Otherwise, we were fully under local control.

    One of my particular memories of the Toronto influence was of a final examination. While under the close scrutiny of those men from Toronto, a young and diversely qualified friend of mine was very careful to keep from sight the notes that he had brought into an examination for guidance. Of course, this was deeply illegal. The examination being over, I was with him when he discovered that, in a terrible moment of distraction, he had handed in the notes with the examination book. He left that afternoon, and I have never seen him since.

    None of this is especially important: it survives in my memory to affirm my limited association with Queen's Park. I have a warmer sense of that relationship from coming up in the summer of 1961, soon after my appointment as ambassador to India, to receive an honorary degree. Under university auspices, I think at Hart House, I received a long and urgent telegram from Washington, in secret code, informing me of matters in our relations with New Delhi. I had no code book and I asked the American consul what I should do about it. I was told to put in a telephone call to Washington and get the content in English. Said the consulate office, "There's nothing to worry about: this is Canada."
    Again my pleasure at my listing in this distinguished company and what it has brought to mind.

    John Kenneth Galbraith
    BSA 1931, LLD Hon. 1961
    Cambridge, Massachusetts

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    The description of Dr. Wilbur Rounding Franks' contribution to aviation medicine underemphasized the enormous impact of his inventions. The Franks Flying Suit, designed to prevent pilots from blacking out during high-speed manoeuvres (primarily dive-bombing), saved the lives of hundreds of Allied pilots during the Second World War. Without his invention, there would have been no cosmonauts or astronauts in space, nor men on the moon. Moreover, an updated version of his human centrifuge was used recently when U.S. Senator John Glenn was tested to determine whether he was fit to make a space trip. How many University of Toronto alumni were designated The Father of Aviation Medicine? I also point out the omission of James Hillier from the list of 100 alumni. His design, while he was still a graduate student at the University of Toronto, permitted the successful production of the electron microscope, and his numerous later patents significantly advanced its capability.

    Alan Rodgman
    BA 1949 VIC, MA 1951, PhD 1953
    Winston-Salem, North Carolina

    Editor's Note: Hillier and lab partner Albert Prebus (PhD 1940), working under the supervision of E.F. Burton, built their microscope in 1938 in just four months.