In memoriam

In memoriam McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 25, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 17
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In memoriam

John Michael Robson

John Michael Robson, distinguished scholar, astute administrator and outstanding teacher, died on April 29, 2000, in Peterborough, Ontario, after a courageous battle with cancer.

After completing his early schooling in the Clifton College boarding school in Bristol, he entered Cambridge University in 1939 with scholarship and graduated in 1942 with an honours BA degree in Natural Sciences. Like many of his contemporaries, he answered the call of duty upon his graduation by joining the wartime radar research effort and, he earned an MA degree from his alma mater in 1946 based on his wartime radar work. He came to Canada in 1945 as a member of the British delegation to work on the Canada-U.K. joint atomic energy project, specializing in nuclear reactor safety design. This turned out to be a stepping stone to a distinguished career in nuclear physics research in Canada. His flair for research was quickly recognized and he was invited to join the Atomic Energy of Canada as a research officer in 1950 to work at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories.

Starting around 1948 and thereafter for the next 12 years, John Robson carried out, almost single-handedly, a series of very important experiments to investigate the decay properties of the free neutron. In this work he clearly demonstrated the ingenuity of his experimental skill and the carefulness of his measurements. The results of these experiments have had profound implications on our understanding of the physical world in which we live; they helped to elucidate the basic characteristics of one of the fundamental forces of nature that has played an important role in the evolution of our universe. The brilliance of his work earned him considerable international recognition. He was elected fellow of the American Physical Society in 1952 and four years later, at the age of 36, he was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada. In 1963, his alma mater, Cambridge University, invited him to submit his research papers in fulfillment of the degree of Doctor of Science.

In 1960, he was appointed to chair the physics department at the University of Ottawa. It was there that he began to take a keen interest in national science affairs. He acquired a reputation as being an astute administrator. His wise counsel was widely sought after by the scientific community and government agencies. He participated actively in the formulation of national science policies.

While at Ottawa, Robson and his students conducted a series of experiments to study the structure of nuclear systems using the fast neutrons from the dynamotron accelerator. In 1968, we were fortunate to be able to lure him to McGill to chair our physics department. His arrival at McGill coincided with the passage of the crest of student enrolment through the department. Our capacity was stretched to the limit and we needed his administrative skill and resourcefulness to take us through that difficult period. He brought a diverse, highly competitive and scattered department together under trying circumstances. He completed his eight-year tenure as chair in 1976, a few months prior to our moving into the new Rutherford Physics Building, whose realization owed much to his effort.

Throughout his years at McGill until his retirement in 1985, Robson maintained a research interest in the elusive neutron. He was a world expert on the transportation of the very slowly moving neutrons, which are called ultra-cold neutrons. He could guide them efficiently through long distance or put them in confinement.

Upon his retirement, he was invited to the Sultan Quaboos University in Oman to establish a new physics department and he stayed there from 1986 to 1990, with a one-year interruption due to the Gulf War, whereupon he returned to Canada to retire in Lakefield, Ontario, near Peterborough. His last scientific paper was written on the physics of flycasting, published in 1990, in the American Journal of Physics, as a result of observations made during his many fishing trips.

In spite of the many commitments during his academic career, John Robson took his teaching responsibilities very seriously. He was a highly respected and totally dedicated teacher. The students became his first love; he was very patient and generous with them. He will be affectionately remembered by generations of physics students for the time and effort which he devoted so freely to them.

Amongst the important honours and awards he received in addition to those already mentioned above, Robson was president of the Canadian Association of Physicists (1966-67), secretary of the Royal Society of Canada (1965-68), member of the National Research Council (1967-73), member of the Board of Governors of University of Ottawa (1965-68) and of Bishop's University (1965-68), and recipient of the Medal for Achievement in Physics of the Canadian Association of Physicists (1978). He was a Macdonald professor of physics at McGill from 1983 to1985, whence he became professor emeritus.

John Robson will be fondly remembered by his many friends, colleagues and students. He is survived by his wife, Nora Summerhays, whom he married in 1950, by his children, Michael, Lisa and Peter, and five grandchildren, and by his brother, Michael Robson, of Wales.

S. K. Tommy Mark
Professor of Physics

Jessie Boyd Scriver

Dr. Jessie Boyd Scriver died peacefully on May 13th 2000. She was approaching her 106th birthday.

During her long lifetime, which spanned two millennia and three centuries, she played many roles including that of daughter and great grandmother; physician, healer and teacher.

Dr. Jessie, as she was known to many, was a pioneer. After receiving her BA from McGill University, she was admitted to the first medical class at McGill to accept women; she and her four female classmates performed with distinction. It wasn't always an easy path. "We walked very warily," Scriver once said, coining a phrase that would become widely used by other women.

Scriver described her male classmates' attitude to the female newcomers as one of "amused tolerance." But the women were pressured by some in the faculty to quit and Scriver's own home was picketed. Scriver finished second in her class of 126.

"You have to be a pretty brave individual to do that at that time," says Dean of Medicine Abe Fuks. "She became a role model to students and a wonderful caregiver to patients."

Following post-graduate training at Harvard, she returned to Montreal, received additional training in pediatrics. Scriver did groundbreaking research in sickle cell anemia that is still cited today. Following her post-graduate work, she opened a pediatrics practice.

She joined the Faculty of Medicine, rising to become associate professor, pediatrician-in- chief at the Royal Victoria Hospital and physician at the Montreal Children's Hospital.

She served as president of the Canadian Pediatric Society and presided during the joint meeting in 1952 of the British Pediatric Association and Canadian Pediatric Society. She was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (Canada) and of the American Academy of Pediatrics; she also held an honorary fellowship in the British Pediatric Association (Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health).

She met her husband in high school. Dr. Walter Scriver was also on the Faculty of Medicine at McGill; he ended his professional career as physician-in-chief (RVH) and professor emeritus; he died in 1967. Together the Scrivers produced an important contribution to McGill - their son Charles, who would go on to become a prominent McGill medical professor and a Prix du Qu*bec winner.

Dr. Jessie received an honorary degree from McGill (Faculty of Medicine) for her contributions as physician, teacher and citizen.

Former dean of medicine Richard Cruess and his wife Sylvia both interned under Scriver. She was "one of the best doctors we had ever seen in our lives," Cruess recalls.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, June 8th, 2 pm at The Montreal West Presbyterian Church (corner of Brock and Nelson Avenues). In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Scriver Family Bequest (Visiting Professorship in Genetic Medicine), Faculty of Medicine, Area Development Office, McGill University.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Last February, the world lost one of its most important contributors to interfaith dialogue and the comparative study of religion. McGill lost the man who established at the University, the continent's first Institute of Islamic Studies. The year was 1952 and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, though only 32 years old, had already seen enough of the violence wreaked by religious strife to be committed to interfaith dialogue.

After obtaining, in 1939, his BA in oriental languages from the University of Toronto, Smith worked for seven years as a missionary in India teaching Indian and Islamic history. During that time in Lahore, he was ordained in the United Church of North India and published his first book, Modern Islam in India: A social analysis, which was banned in India due to its "communist" approach. Smith also witnessed the bloody partition of India and Pakistan, "and it was this consciousness that pervaded his outlook on the teaching and practice of religion," notes Sheila McDonough, a former student of Smith and retired professsor of religions studies from Concordia University.

After obtaining his PhD from Princeton University in 1948, Smith was hired by the McGill Faculty of Divinity as the WM Birks Professor of Comparative Religion where he pursued his interest in Islam and seized the opportunity to found the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies. Professor Smith placed great emphasis on religion since he was convinced that the history of the Muslim people could not be understood without recognizing that religion was the key, as well as the most important single force in the formation and development of the Islamic civilization.

Smith also believed that a long range study of the processes at work in the modern Muslim world could not be achieved by non-Muslims studying in a non-Muslim institution without the presence of Muslims. He therefore designed the institute, including the library, in response to the dilemma of how to study these processes in way that would involve Muslims and non-Muslims alike and would use the best of contemporary scholarly methods to approach the data of the tumultuous Muslim world. Each day, Smith would organize a four o-clock tea in which East would meet West as all members of the institute -- students, librarians and faculty -- would gather together.

Leaving McGill in 1963, Smith returned to India for a year before accepting a post at Harvard University. Nine years later he joined Dalhousie University as the first member of its department of religion, later returning to Harvard to oversee the develoment of a program in religion within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 1985, her returned to his native Toronto, working as a senior research associated until shortly before his death. His most recent accomplishment was his induction last year into the Order of Canada.

While he leaves the world a legacy of teaching and scholarship, much of it translated, one of Smith's greatest gifts to McGill is the creation of the Islamic Studies Library. Beginning with only 250 books, the library now holds more than 125,000 volumes, half of them in oriental languages, and a collection of periodicals not easily found elsewhere. Thanks to Professor Smith, the ISL is counted among the major North American collections in Islamic Studies.

Salwa Ferahian
Acting head librarian,
Islamic Studies Library

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