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75 years of chemistry at the NRC: one discipline marching to three drummers.

Three imperatives have continually shaped and directed the life of the National Research Council of Canada during its first 75 years:

dedication to science, defined as the pursuit of knowledge; the development of scientists and technologists; and generating technology that serves the nation's industrial and commercial needs.

Each of these imperatives have temporarily dominated the life of the NRC at different times, until the other two have re-emerged with increased vigour to claim their rightful place. Seventy-five years of achievement in chemistry demonstrate that this competition between imperatives has been beneficial, and has made the NRC an imaginative, dynamic and flexible institution.

Getting Started (1916 to 1932)

A meeting was convened by the Minister of Trade and Commerce in May, 1915, to explore the feasibility of forming a Canadian research council to combat the dislocations of normal industrial supplies caused by the First World War. T.H. Wardleworth, president of the National Drug and Chemical Co., was the only non-academic at that meeting. This is surprising considering the portfolio held by the convener and the industrial concern which prompted the meeting. Wardleworth aggressively favoured forming such a research council. Although the National Research Council (NRC, but originally named the Canada Research Council) was formed in 1916 with a mandate to serve industry, Wardleworth appears to have been the last representative of industry to sit directly on the Advisory Council until the Second World War.

The new Council immediately dispatched a four-member team to survey the needs of the western provinces. This team contained three of the first four chairmen of NRC: A.B. Macallum, R.F. Ruttan and R.S. Ross. Ruttan was a particularly colourful personality. He was also the last student of H.H. Croft, the first person to teach chemistry in the Province of Canada. Ruttan served as professor of chemistry at McGill where he was renowned for bailing out students who got into trouble. Indeed, Ruttan's former students and admirers provided an unsolicited public relations cadre for the team's western tour.

The inquirers learned that Western Canada was desperate for winter fuel in 1917 and they advocated that plentiful lignite deposits in South Saskatchewan be developed into a briquette industry. This was a production and engineering exercise rather than basic science, but it was an opportunity to prove the value of a research institution to the public. The chemistry of binding the soft lignite into usable briquettes was easily solved, but political and bureaucratic problems plagued the project until it was ultimately sold to private interests in 1929.

A.B. Macallum was NRC's first chairman, the leading force in the lignite project and the embodiment of the council's dedication to scientific competence. His reputation as a scientist made McGill University Montreal) create a chair in biochemistry to lure him from NRC, only to lose him immediately for five months to the Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation persuaded Macallum to go to China to lecture and organize the Peking Medical School.

After a bill to provide NRC with its own laboratories died in the Senate in 1922, it was obvious that the council would have to promote scientific research at arm's length. Throughout its first 16 years, NRC promoted research effectively through associate advisory committees, joint projects with industry and by awarding fellowships, scholarships and bursaries. Investigation at this time touched such fields as fuel, industrial alcohol, air research, food research, ultra violet radiation and X-rays.

As illustrated by the lignite episode, there was a true reciprocity between chemistry and NRC in this period. The fourth chairman and first president of NRC, Henry Marshall Tory, was a public relations genius. He used achievements in chemistry as a lever to pry research staff and laboratories out of a reluctant government. Two achievements, which Tory used effectively to win public support, involved tinned lobster and fire brick.

In 1923, under a grant from the NRC, F.C. Harrison and E.G. Hood of McGill's MacDonald College developed a cheap and highly-effective way of preventing the discolouration of canned lobster. Preventing discolouration in tinned food was something to which a small and predominantly rural country could respond. Tory alerted every Canadian about the further benefits that could be expected from a properly equipped NRC.

A profitable magnesite mining industry in the Grenville district of Quebec was threatened when competition from superior Austrian firebrick resumed after the First World War. The government of the day, wishing to avoid foreign tariff squabbles, gave the NRC $25,000 to develop a competitive Canadian product. Tory was determined to succeed and hired Frank E. Lathe who had served as chief chemist to the Chile Exploration Co. The project eventually meant that Canada produced and exported some 50 refractory and related products to about 30 countries. The magnesia also found uses in the pulp and paper industry. Lathe was the first full-time research scientist on the NRC pay-roll. With the success of the project, he was soon joined by other scientists and technicians.

Assistance to industry and benefits to the Canadian economy held centre stage in the public's attention while another significant movement was gathering force off-stage. NRC began to grant post graduate fellowships to Canadian students in 1916, only to find the Canadian universities were poorly equipped for post-graduate scientific study and research. An NRC-administered system of scholarships and grants helped Canadian universities move into the front rank of scientific scholarship and research within 10 years. The significance of chemistry to Canada can be grasped from the fact, that of the 56 awards made by NRC at 10 universities in Canada in 1925, 30 were spread across the five branches of chemistry. Among the many chemistry division researchers produced by this programme was E.W.R. (Ned) Steacie, internationally acclaimed photochemist and the first president of NRC to be appointed from within. In 1928, parliament voted $750,000 for the erection of buildings on Sussex Street in Ottawa to be used as laboratories. Directors were appointed to four main research divisions in 1929 and G.S. Whitby was appointed director of the Division of Chemistry. NRC's first director of chemistry was abundantly qualified by virtue of 27 years of continuous work in chemical research (primarily in the rubber industry), having received many awards, and having been president of both the Canadian Institute of Chemistry and the Canadian Chemical Association.

The linkage of the chemistry division with the presidency of The Chemical Institute of Canada and its constituent societies has been perpetuated by Ed Capes, FCIC, Keith Ingold, FCIC, Dick Manske, Leo Marion, Jim Morrison, Ira Puddington, FCIC, Ned Steacie, David Wiles, FCIC, and Gordon Young. William Schneider, HFCIC, former chemistry division director and longest-serving president of NRC, is the only Canadian to have become president of IUPAC.

Whitby exemplified dedication to science by accepting his post at $1,500 per year less than his current remuneration as a university professor.

Among the initial appointees to the Division of Chemistry in 1929 and 1930 were: J. Ansel Anderson, who pioneered the biochemistry of rust resistance in wheat; W.H. Cook, who developed grain-drying technology of considerable economic importance; C.Y. Hopkins, paint; A. Cambron, industrial organic chemistry; Paul Larose, wool; David Wolochow, asbestos; and also Morris Katz, 0. Moorehouse Morgan, William E. Graham, Helen D. Chataway and Colin H. Bailey. Wilfrid Eggleston in his National Research In Canada astutely notes how fortunate that these people, who were to provide outstanding leadership during the wartime expansion, were recruited before the Great Depression reduced NRC's budget to the point at which such talent would have been unaffordable.

Getting Established (1932 to 1952)

The actual construction of the NRC laboratories on Sussex Street (now Sussex Drive) commenced on February 28, 1930 and were opened on August 10, 1932. The laboratories were magnificent, but budgets had been slashed to the point where it was impossible to fully staff and operate all the planned facilities. From 1932 to 1935, students were permitted to work in the new facilities at no pay. One unpaid recruit was Donald Caplan who retired at the age of 65 after a distinguished career working in corrosion research. Caplan's life-long dedication to science is typical of thousands of men and women at NRC over the years. The acquisition of research facilities meant that NRC's Advisory Council now helped to choose staff for the new laboratories and to direct research policy, in addition to disbursing scholarships and grants and organizing associate committee projects. The revitalized Advisory Council of 1935 lists the heads of chemistry from the Universities of Mount Allison, Laval and McGill. Other names are less easily identified with respect to scientific discipline, but it can be safely inferred that this body contained the cream of chemists within academia and government.

With the exception of Manske and Marion who worked together isolating and identifying alkaloids in Canadian mosses, the Division of Chemistry was busy on industrial research until the outbreak of war. Indeed up to half of the professional staff of the division was employed doing contract research. Puddington joined in 1938 to research the nature of lubricating grease, and he remembers the following people heading up industrial research projects prior to the Second World War: A.C. Halferdahl, corrosion; D.F. Stedman, distillation; T.R. Griffith, rubber; W. Davis, chemical analysis; L. Hodinott, refractories; E.A. Flood, defence problems and selenium chemistry; C.H. Bayley, laundering and cleaning; L.M. Pidgeon, magnesium recovery; M. Katz, atmospheric pollution; and A. Rose, leather. There was also a plastics laboratory which anticipated the advent of materials sciences.

Some projects were specifically focused on current problems. Wilfrid Gallay headed a colloid laboratory with a specific mission to upgrade Ontario casein. Another project, focused on potato starch, sought to relieve a glut of potatoes in the Maritimes. A form of instant potatoes was also produced, many years passed before such a product became generally acceptable.

Steacie guided the chemistry division through the war years, having become director within months of Whitby's resignation in late 1938. NRC's staff rose to over 3,000, while the original four divisions expanded to 13 during the WWII. The list of wartime achievements is too lengthy to reproduce, but the metallic magnesium project deserves mention as an example of the lengths to which the division was ready to go.

Germany had been the sole source for metallic magnesium in pre-war days and Pidgeon developed a thermite process for producing the metal in demand for flares and aircraft construction, among other things. Pidgeon and the division literally organized the Dominion Magnesium Co., which established a pilot plant that proved the commercial feasibility of the process. Dominion Magnesium then established a production plant, which still exists near Renfrew, Ont. More than five US plants were soon using the Pidgeon process, and their staff had been trained in Canada. The massive industrialization of Canada during the Second World War largely had been achieved by free access to the latest scientific information possessed by the UK and US. As early as 1944, NRC leaders were pointing out that such access would disappear soon after hostilities ceased and Canada had better plan for continued research in pure and industrial science at a rate comparable to war time. This concern led to the establishment of specialized research agencies, such as Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) and the Defence Research Board (DRB). These agencies usually proceeded to recruit whole sections from NRC. Steacie regarded the formation of these specialized agencies as signs that Canada's scientific community was maturing. Work within the chemistry division changed a great deal after the war. During this period, contract-supported research almost ceased, except for personnel employed by private industry on their share of joint projects. An exodus of senior researchers to new government departments or into industry frequently spelled the end of activity in such fields as magnesium or asbestos. However, overall the scope and amount of research continued to expand satisfactorily. Extensive use of pilot-plant studies during the war culminated in 1944 with the creation of a chemical engineering section within the chemistry division in Ottawa, and a chemical engineering laboratory as part of NRC's Atomic Energy Research Division. Under Paul Gishler, the Ottawa chemical engineering section developed fluid bed applications for projects as diverse as grain drying and fines recovery. NRC's operating responsibility for the Chalk River Laboratory continued until 1952, when AECL was created as a crown corporation.

The postwar desire to enhance the study and practice of science within Canada also led to the Postdoctorate Fellowship (PDF) scheme. It existed from 1948 until it was subsumed under the Research Associate programme in 1975. A comparison of the Graduate programme after the First World War, with the Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme after the second, indicates how far Canadian science scholarship had come and how far it yet had to go. C.J. MacKenzie, acting president of NRC (1939 to 1944) and then president (1944 to 1952), describes the scheme.

(Dr.) E.W. R. Steacie and I initiated the Postdoctorate Fellowship scheme; the fellowships to be open to physical science graduates from all countries, the only requirement being that the candidates should have the highest possible qualifications. This scheme would ensure that a substantial number of the scientific staff of the NRC would always be young people, with the fresh viewpoints and enthusiasm that this implies. Moreover some of these Postdoctorate Fellows would be interested in taking up permanent positions in the universities and industrial and governmental research institutions of Canada... As a result of this programme there are now (February, 1978) at least 750 chemists in good positions around the world who have a thorough appreciation of the National Research Council's ability to initiate and carry out first class scientific research."

Those words are taken from an introduction to a directory of 750 PDFs compiled in 1978 by Marj Mackenzie, a former technician at the Pure Chemistry Division, who maintained contact with many of them. The directory reads like a Who's Who of international chemistry research. Letters received from former PDFs contain such memorable quotes as, "Not only will it be very interesting to see what has happened to all our friends and ex-friends, but it will be instructive to see. . . - what an important part the NRC fellowship of Ned Steacie played in developing science, not only in Canada but elsewhere in the world, and how well the selection committee did on recognizing scientific potential and encouraging future excellence." The Halcyon Days (1952 to 1974) The year 1952 is chosen as a watershed for two reasons. First, the former director of the Division of Chemistry, Steacie, became NRC president. Second, chemistry officially was divided into Pure Chemistry (under Marion) and remained at the Sussex Building, while Applied Chemistry (under Puddington moved) into its own new building (M-12) on the Montreal Road campus. In the late 1940s, a de-facto separation within the division had placed pure chemistry under director Steacie, and applied chemistry under deputy director Adrien Cambron. In 1969, the two branches of research were reunited as one Division of Chemistry under Puddington.

During the 1950s, the Division of Applied Chemistry added several more sections, which largely issued from earlier work and which continued to evolve.

- metanurgical chemistry started with Cambron's work on hydrocarbon epioxides

and moved onto X-ray crystallography and inorganic chemistry.

- high-polymer chemistry became a separate and distinct study of polymer systems from independent initiatives in rubber, colloid and textiles research.

- kinetics and catalysis derived from attempts to produce ethylene oxide by direct oxidation and moved in the direction of atmospheric chemistry.

- high-pressure chemistry began in 1954 and became a separate section about 1960. Under E.W. Whalley, this section charted the thermodynamic properties of steam which is instrumental in achieving a more precise design of large power plants.

- hydrocarbon chemistry was created as a separate section in 1966 and took on a new emphasis with the energy crises of the mid-1970s.

Steacie, as president, articulated his very definite ideas about the correct direction for NRC in a speech to the CIC in 1956. He pointed out how the wartime performance of the Canadian scientific community in applied science had earned recognition by the Canadian public, as demonstrated by the growth of NRC's budget from $5.2-million in 1945-46 to $12.9-million in 1950-51. However, he also said that the war had stopped basic scientific research and it was essential that NRC should devote more of its efforts to pure science.

During Steacie's presidency, funding for applied science remained high, yet there was little pressure to focus on specific problems like a potato glut in the Maritimes. Alternatively, there was an unprecedented freedom to pursue scientific curiosity within the chemistry division, both in basic research and applied research.

The recruitment of large numbers of PDFs reinforced the trend towards satisfying scientific curiosity. NRC was obliged to create programmes that used the PDFS' special talents during their two years in its laboratories. The tendency was to accommodate programmes to people, with the goal of building the country's skilled resource pool. Puddington remembers that at one time more than 20 languages were spoken fluently within M-12. The emphasis on scientific curiosity was reinforced by Steacie's outspoken aversion to team research. He felt it militated against a research chemist's essential need to pursue his or her individual truth.

The new building for applied chemistry was started in 1947, but not completed until 1952. Although both ends of the building sit on bed rock, the belated discovery of a subterranean ravine running across the middle of the building slowed construction. The wait was worthwhile, because excavating most of the ravine meant M-12 could house a 40-foot column of mercury. This column helped high pressure chemistry define the thermodynamic properties of steam.

This ravine also was instrumental in creating the legend of the mysteriously expanding chemistry building. Although M-12 also seemed to offer abundant laboratory space when it was built, rapid expansion soon outstripped NRC's ability to provide serviced space for its researchers. For example, a chemical engineering tower planned for the north end of the building in 1968, was not constructed until 1985. The chemistry division ingeniously expanded its serviced laboratory space below ground by having contractors shovel additional soil from the subterranean ravine into wheelbarrows and take it out though the elevators. Today, M-12 is part of scientific folk lore as the mysteriously expanding chemistry building that houses almost as much laboratory space below ground as above.

Unprecedented national prosperity supported Steacie's efforts to direct NRC's evolution. He was sufficiently astute to yoke all three imperatives which drive NRC. Basic research, the Postdoctorate Scheme and support for Canada's industrial needs (in particular, the burgeoning chemical industry) all meshed like clockwork.

But the times were changing and by the late 1960s, Puddington observed that work begun by the original four sections of chemistry (analytical, colloids, corrosion and textiles) was still being pursued, but the procedures had changed dramatically:

"While wet chemistry is still necessary, instrumentation

accounts for a good deal of current analytical work. Corrosion

research has transformed from salt spray cabinets

to a sophisticated surface chemical and physical study. A

very substantial portion of textile fibres is now derived

from petroleum rather from plant sources ... Colloids are

classically rather prosaic and much of the work now done

deals with small particle technology - agglomeration,

mineral separation and the like."

And the next 15 years would bring more change ...
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Title Annotation:three imperatives of the National Research Council of Canada
Author:Reaume, Lloyd
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Words:3231
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