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Canadian Contributions to Science

Canada Day is coming up! Which means there is no better time to celebrate some Canadian contributions to science.

When I carried out an informal survey asking about Canadian scientific achievements, the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell topped the list. Actually, Bell’s iconic words in 1876, "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you" were not uttered in Canada, but in Bell’s lab in Boston. The inventor, though, did trace his inspiration for the telephone to a summer visit to the family home in Brantford, Ontario. He recalled sitting by the Grand River in 1874 and listening to the sounds emitted by the current. That set him wondering about transmitting sound by controlling the intensity of an electric current.

Bell was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada with his family at the age of 23, but just a year later moved to Boston where he experimented with teaching deaf children to speak. In 1882, he became an American citizen but didn’t forget about the natural beauty of Canada and purchased a home on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. From then on, he divided his time and research between the U.S. and Canada. It was in Nova Scotia that he worked on a hydrofoil, giant kites, and the “Silver Dart,” the first airplane to fly in Canada. Bell is buried in Nova Scotia, and although technically he wasn’t Canadian, his connection to the country is strong enough for history to adopt him as an honorary citizen.

Second to Bell, the most frequently mentioned Canadian contribution in my survey was the isolation and therapeutic use of insulin by Banting and Best in the 1920s. That research was carried out at the University of Toronto, so it is truly Canadian. Curiously, the third most frequently mentioned Canadian “invention” was maple syrup. Calling this sweet sap of the maple tree an invention is a bit of a stretch, but in any case, indigenous people were boiling the sap to make syrup long before there was a Canada.

Also mentioned as a Canadian invention, although not exactly scientific, was Superman. Joe Shuster, who partnered with American Jerry Siegel to create perhaps the most famous comic book character in history, was Canadian, and had gone to elementary school in Toronto. When he was ten, the family moved to Ohio where he met Siegel who would later describe the meeting as being like “the right chemicals coming together.” The chemistry was right, but the duo’s business acumen, not so good. In one of the worst deals ever, Shuster and Siegel sold the rights to Superman for $130 to Action Comics! In the first issue of the comic book, Clark Kent, Superman’s secret identity, worked as a reporter for the “Daily Star,” a newspaper Shuster named after the Toronto Daily Star, the paper for which he had worked as a delivery boy. He also is said to have modeled the cityscape of Metropolis, Superman’s home city, after Toronto.

Now how about some really “super” Canadian contributions that are generally not well known? Like “Plexiglas,” the plastic used to make those dividers we became so familiar with during the COVID pandemic. Let’s climb into our time machine and make a stop in 1930 at a McGill University chemistry lab where graduate student William Chalmers is working on a method to produce methyl methacrylate, a chemical for which Dr. Otto Rohm in Germany had found an important use. In the 1920s, Rohm had discovered a way to join molecules of methyl methacrylate into polymethyl methacrylate. “Plexiglas,” as the novel substance was named, was transparent, strong, and could be heat-molded into whatever shape was desired. Being much tougher than glass, the novel plastic seemed ideal for aircraft windows. There was a problem, though. Methyl methacrylate, the required starting material, could not be produced on a large scale that was economically viable.

William Chalmers knew of this difficulty and dedicated himself to solving the problem, which he did by managing to synthesize methyl methacrylate from acetone and hydrogen cyanide, both of which were readily available. Chalmers knew that John Crawford, a chemist at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in England, was working with acrylic polymers and suggested he try the new method for making methyl methacrylate. Crawford successfully scaled up the process and made the mass production of polymethyl methacrylate possible, calling it “Perspex”. The Royal Air Force recognized the potential of the material and by 1936 Britain had built plant to manufacture polymethyl methacrylate. Soon Spitfires with Perspex canopies began to roll off the assembly line. This was followed by the B-19 Douglas Superbomber in which both the bombardier compartment and the machine gun turrets were made of Perspex, allowing occupants unobstructed views.

Hopping into our time machine once more, we will travel even further back to 1892 when Canadian Thomas Willson placed some calcium oxide (lime), coal tar and aluminum oxide in a container and heated the mix to a high temperature. He was hoping to produce metallic aluminum, which at the time was an extremely expensive commodity. After heating for some time, he opened the furnace, hoping to see shiny metallic aluminum. But instead saw a dark residue that he discarded in stream running outside his lab.

As soon as the stuff hit the water, huge bubbles began to form and a plume of water shot up into the air. Whatever he had made, seemed more interesting than the aluminum he had sought! It turned out he had accidentally made calcium carbide which reacts with water to form acetylene gas. Why was this important? Although in the 1890s city streets and homes were already lit with coal gas lamps, mobile lighting was still restricted to candles and kerosene lamps. Willson realized his acetylene, which burned with a far more brilliant flame than kerosene, had great market potential. Soon lamps based on calcium carbide appeared. They were clever devices in which water dripped into a container of carbide and generated acetylene gas. This in turn was channeled to a nozzle where it could be ignited. A mirrored surface behind the flame increased the intensity of the light. By 1895 he had founded a company which eventually became Union Carbide, one of the biggest chemical companies in the world.

Once more back into the time machine for a stop in 1970, again a chemistry lab at McGill. This time, the lab I worked in as a graduate student. My project involved determining the molecular structure of certain carbohydrates and in this context became acquainted with the pioneering work of Dr. Ray Lemieux, one of Canada’s most noted chemists. First, at the National Research Council’s Prairie Regional Lab in Saskatoon, and then as a Professor at the University of Alberta, Lemieux had carried out pioneering work on carbohydrates that was pivotal in blood group analysis as well as in the synthesis of novel antibiotics. In 1953, Lemieux accomplished what at the time was regarded as the Mount Everest of organic chemistry, the synthesis of sucrose, a goal that had defied the efforts of the world’s top chemists. Why would there be a need to synthesize sucrose, a substance that is readily available from sugar cane? There was obviously no commercial value in this, but the challenge of developing a difficult syntheses inevitably leads to discovering chemical reactions that have applications elsewhere. So it was with the synthesis of sucrose. Today, the groundbreaking accomplishments of Professor Lemieux have become part of the armamentarium of chemists all over the world who strive to advance society’s welfare.

Oh yeah. One other Canadian contribution to science. Food science in particular. That delicacy known as poutine.


@JoeSchwarcz

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