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
[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
[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.
|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.
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
(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.
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
Although not a faculty member during this period, Garnet Alexander
[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.
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).