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E.W.R. Steacie and Science in Canada.

E.W.R. Steacie and Science in Canada. By M. Christine King, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 288 p.p.,(British lb)24.

I remember as if it were yesterday the morning, about 45 years ago, when a spiral of cigarette smoke wafted through the open door of my office-cumlaboratory in Cambridge and was followed by a man, slightly shorter than I, who said, "I am Steacie." That statement had no significance for me and being preoccupied with glass blowing which could not be interrupted, I waved him to a seat. "Do you enjoy doing that?" he asked. Yes," I replied, "and it is a great relief from committees; quite soothing." "I agree; it's fun," he said as his firm mouth and jaw relaxed into an infectious grin and his eyes twinkled. So began a life-long friendship, terminated only by his untimely death in 1962.

On hot July or August evening the following year we sat sipping whisky and talking in my room in the Staff House at Deep River, the community for people working at the atomic energy enterprise at Chalk River in Ont. Among the topics we discussed was how the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), of which he was then the vice-president, could facilitate the two-way flow of able postdoctoral scientists between Canada and countries of Western Europe. He wanted these postdocs to be able to gain the same inestimable benefits that he had derived 12 years earlier from a sojourn in London and Frankfurt.

As we talked and the light faded and the glow worms flashed intermittently, I began to realise that here was a man who, once convinced something should be done, would do it. Apart from his shrewd common sense, I saw that his greatest assets were his patent honesty, integrity and unselfishness, coupled with a total lack of pomposity.

A patriot, as befitted the son of a soldier whom he revered, he saw that

Canada was backward industrially and overshadowed in manufacture by its great southern neighbour. Even Britain, with its own urgent economic problems and in its greatly straitened circumstances following six years of war, was still able to supply many of the key personnel for the Chalk River project that Canada could not provide.

Already Steacie saw his role as one of contributing to Canada's progress by raising its scientific and engineering competence, through the instrument of the NRC. As president of the council in the last 10 years of his life, he used the NRC to energize scientific and technological research and development in Canadian universities, government establishments and industry.

This book is his biography and is written by another chemist, Christine King, who had become fascinated by the history and philosophy of science. It is also her memorial, for she was killed in a car accident in Britain when the editing of the typescript by the University of Toronto Press had just begun. It does her memory credit for, in my judgment, she has given her readers a true picture in most readable prose of the life and times of a man acknowledged by his compatriots and by foreigners alike as epitomising the dynamism of Canadian science in its heyday in the 1950s.

The story is fascinating, not least because Steacie's childhood in that most English of Montreal districts, Westmount, was rather lonely, was clouded by the death of his father at Ypres when he was only 15, and received little stimulus from a rather narrow minded mother. A successful year at the Royal Militay College (Kingston, Ont.) could not disguise the fact that he was not content to be a soldier. He then transferred to McGill University (Montreal) where he read chemical engineering and took a PhD in chemistry. There was little in his years at McGill to foreshadow the creative period to follow when, encouraged by Otto Maass, chairman of the chemistry department at McGill, and C.J. Mackenzie, acting director of the NRC, he left his professorship at McGill and moved in 1939 to the NRC at Ottawa.

As the tale unfolds we are shown an entirely lovable man, devoted to his family, country and vocation, who inspired and helped many and brought science into the public consciousness in Canada. Much was achieved with the minimum of costive paper work and bureaucracy, and the maximum use of homespun, unmalicious wit and ready smile. His motto seemed to be: "Find good people, show them the problem and support them until they cease to merit it."

The sociologist and political scientist who seek in this volume signs of deep philosophical principles which in their view should inform the interactions of government with the scientific estate will look in vain in this account of Steacie's successful scientific leadership. Steacie the pragmatist, who thought life and science were indivisible and fun, would probably have stigmatised their efforts as pretentious nonsense.

Full of honour, he died in office at the age of 62. Fourteen days earlier and aware that death was near, but unselfish as ever, he performed the last of many acts of kindness to me and my family by writing a letter full of concern and wise advice for me.

Perhaps it was as well that Steacie did not live to see what the future held for the NRC. The report of the Glassco Commission on the organization of government, which Steacie found hurtful, was but the precursor of many other reports which were to be critical of the NRC. The years that followed saw the establishment of the Ministry of Science and Technology with much verbiage but no clout because no money, and culminated in the year of the bicentenary of the French Revolution with what was euphemistically called reorganisation but which to the external observer appears to be a dismemberment of the NRC laboratories.

The question arises whether Steacie, with his unique personal qualities, could have done better than his successors and gone down in history not only as champion but also as saviour of Canadian science. I very much doubt it because, irrespective of their political ideologies, the attitudes of governments to science in much of the English-speaking world have undergone a significant change during the 1980s. Accountants and second-rate business school jargon are in the ascendant. Costs, which rise rapidly, and are easily ascertained and comprehensible, now weigh more heavily in the scales than the unquantifiable and unpredictable impacts of science on cultural values and future material progress. Perhaps science will only regain its lost primacy as peopels and government begin to recognize that sound scientific work is the only secure basis for the construction of policies to ensure the survival of Mankind without irreversible damage to Planet Earth.

Lord FS. Dainton

Oxford, England

Editor's Note: Reprinted, with permission, from the New Scientis( March 3, 1990.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Chemical Institute of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Dainton, F.S.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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