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Memorial Address

Sir John Mclennan

October 13, 1935

In Memory of Sir John Cunningham McLennan
K.B.E., F.R.S.


The Honourable and Reverend Dr. H.J. Cody
President of the University of Toronto

It is meet and right that we should hold a memorial service for Sir John Cunningham McLennan in this Convocation Hall, to the erection of which he made, perhaps, the greatest individual contribution,  It is fitting that the University of Toronto should publicly pay honour to the character and work of one of her greatest sons.  It is fitting that his friends should join together in a service of worship, to bow before the decrees of a loving Father, to give thanks for a life faithfully lived, and to express the tribute of friends to a friend.  As we grow older it seems that these friends, our early contemporaries, are falling fast about us.  The words of the anthem in the ancient burial office come back to us with double force:

In the midst of life we are in death,
Of whom may we seek for succour but of Thee, O Lord?

The news of Sir J. C. McLennan's death came as a shock to his Canadian friends and his English friends alike.  He was on the train returning from a meeting in Paris.  I would conjecture that it was a meeting of the International  Committee of Weights and Measures to which he was appointed in 1929, or a Radium Conference.  It seems to me that a note singular pathos is struck by his dying alone, without a friend.  The highest distinction from earthly recognition that came to him, came too late for long enjoyment on earth, too late for sharing with her who was his heart's best loved.  One could not help feeling how lonely his was.  God in His mercy "touched him and he slept".  To-day we meet to thank God for a great teacher and for what great teacher can do, and to thank God through him for the great multitude of those who in every age have loved the Lord their God with all their minds.  Thanksgiving, perhaps, rather than sorrow, is the note that should predominate in our service this afternoon.  I would say a few words about his preparation, his performance, and his personality.

His Preparation

Professor McLennan came of the best Scottish stock, of a father from Aberdeen, and a mother from Ayershire.  The last summer in company with one of his sisters he visited the grave of his maternal grandfather in Stewarton, Ayershire, Scotland.  Together they read the inscription on the tombstone, on which (as in the south of Scotland is so often done), the name and the occupation are linked together- James Cunningham, Teacher.  The love of learning and the ambition to teach were in his blood.  His mother and he were born on the same day, the 14th of April, and during all their life a joint celebration marked the day.  To her he was a devoted son, even as to the members of his family a most devoted brother.  His mother and his wife were the two great human inspirations in his life.  Does not Ruskin say that no man ever goes out well armed to the battle of life unless his  armour has been buckled on well and truly by some noble woman?  He was born in the county of Oxford, in the town of Ingersoll.  He matriculated from the High School at Clinton.  Like so many of those who have done most signal service to this country, he spend some years in teaching, that he might earn money enough ultimately to go to the University.  He attended the Stratford Collegiate Institute to study Mathematics under Dr. A. H. McDougall.  (Afterwards Dr. McDougall was Principal of the Ottawa Collegiate Institute).  Dr. McDougall's  influence on Professor McLennan as a teacher was perhaps the greatest  moulding influence of his early life, after that most intimate influence of his mother.  He came to the University of Toronto; he was in his First Year, I remember, when I was in my last.  He took the  Honour course in Mathematics and Physics and graduated in 1892 first in First Class  honours in the division of Physics.  He was then twenty-five years of age.  After his graduation he entered the service of the University of Toronto and mounted through each stage of the academic hierarchy.  Assistant Demonstrator, Demonstrator, Associate Professor of the School of Graduate Studies- all these in turn he was.  He won a national and international reputation.  Academic  honours in the course of his life fell thick and fast upon him.  Other posts with greater remuneration were offered but he remained with us.  Perhaps the honours he prized most are those attached to his name on this folder- his fellowship in the Royal Society and his Knighthood from the King.

His Performance

To his work let us direct our thoughts.  How varied it was!  I speak first of his work in connection with the development and organization of this University.  He was one of those who founded the Alumni Association of this University- Dr. Reeve was President; Mr. Irving H. Cameron and Dr. Fred Starr were among the outstanding leaders, and Professor J. C. McLennan was secretary.  In those early years he was the driving force, the embodied energy of the movement.  Those men set out to create primarily in the minds of graduates, but secondarily in the minds of the whole community, goodwill towards this institution of higher learning; and well did they succeed in bringing the University of Toronto, its needs and its possibilities, before the citizens of the Province.  The most dramatic feature of his effort was the building of this Convocation Hall.  Many a time have I heard him tell the story.  Perhaps most of you have heard it but to some it may be new.  The Government of the Province of the day had not an abundant revenue; it was extremely economical and never felt able to make any large grants to the University.  The academic times were very difficult.  Federation had become an accomplished fact but the money needed to make the wheels of the new organization run smoothly was certainly lacking.  One thing needed as a visible bond between the constituent members of the Federation was a Convocation Hall.  Again and again the Prime Minister was approached but did not see his way clear to help.  One night at dinner Mr. McLennan met the Prime Minister and once more approached him in jocular form.  The Prime Minister responded half jesting and half earnest: "I will give you ten thousand dollars a year for five years, if you will raise fifty thousand dollars from the friends of the University."  Mr. McLennan, then only a Demonstrator, began: he interviewed one friend of the University, a man of wide interest and knowledge of affairs, but the interview was an interview of discouragement;  "It cannot be done."  But Mr. McLennan, Mr. Cameron, Dr. Starr, Dr. Reeve, and all those who worked with them, raised forty-three thousand dollars.  Mr. McLennan told Dr. Loudon, the President; "This is all we can do.  We have exhausted our resources."  That night a visitor came to the Dean's residence where Mr. McLennan was living.  This was Mr. Goldwin Smith.  "Are you Mr. J.C. McLennan?" "I am." "I hear you are raising money to build a Convocation Hall?" "Yes".  "Mrs. Smith and I would like to share.  Will you accept this  cheque?"  The cheque was for seven thousand dollars.  And so the fifty thousand dollars were raised and the Convocation Hall was built.  The foundation stone was laid on the tenth of June, 1904, and Professor McLennan's mother was present as an honoured guest.  Surely as we look about this hall, in which we hold our convocations, those who know may well use the famous (though hackneyed) epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul's Cathedral, London- " Si monumentum requiris circumspice". "If you are seeking for his monument, look about you."

Secondly, I would refer to his work of research.  How did he get his stimulus? For the six years during which he acted as Assistant Demonstrator in Physics he felt that something was lacking in the academic atmosphere.  It was that subtle thing beginning to be widely known as research- the effort to extend the boundaries of knowledge.  So on a holiday in 1896 he took a trip to England and at Liverpool met Professor, afterwards Sir Oliver Lodge, Professor of Physics at University College, Liverpool, and later Principal of the University of Birmingham.  This was an intellectual turning-point in Professor McLennan's career.  Professor Lodge opened up to him the new world of research; by and by put him in touch with great leaders in this field; showed him where the real problems lay; and gave him the inspiration to proceed.  So in 1898 he gave up his not heavily remunerated post of Demonstrator in this University and journeyed to England.  He went to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, which was then under the charge of that amazing man, Professor Sir J. J. Thompson, now Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as Professor of Physics, who had been appointed to his Chair when well under thirty years of age.  A young man had a chance there.  What a group of pupils were assembled under him, who is affectionately known as "J. J."!  There was Rutherford, now a peer and Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge.  There was C. T. R. Wilson, now  Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy, Cambridge.  There were McClelland, later Professor of Physics in the Royal (now National) University, Dublin; Townsend, now at Oxford; H. A. Wilson, now at the Rice Institute in Houston, Texas; and John Zeleny, Dean of Science of Yale University.  Most of these had been drawn to Cambridge by the fame of "J. J." and by a liberal University regulation which permitted men to come from other Universities in Britain and the overseas Dominions and enter as advanced students without examination and to take their degrees on a thesis only.  This group were Professor J. C. McLennan's friends.  In 1931 when we were together on the Cancer Commission, we went to Cambridge, and it warmed the hearts of Dr McLennan's friends to see the respect and affection with which he was received by Rutherford and "J. J." and by all that group who were "smashing the atom". It is interesting to note that from the Department of Physics since the time of McLennan we have sent year after year some student to the Cavendish Laboratory.  After Professor McLennan came John Patterson and E.F. Burton and Dawes of McMaster, and McTaggart, and C. S. Wright (now of the British Admiralty), and David Keys of McGill, and Woodcock who has just returned to our staff.  Practical laboratory work in Physics had been started by Dr. Loundon.  Parallel practical laboratory work had been begun by others in the science group-  Ramsay Wright in Biology,  MacCallum in Biochemistry and Pike in Chemistry.  Professor McLennan's devotion to his laboratory was whole-hearted; in the course of the years he built it up into one of the great physical laboratories of the world.  It bears his name; it still maintains its old time reputation for careful and intensive experimentation.  Perhaps Dr. McLennan did as much as any one man in our University history to infuse the spirit of research into this institution.  Beside him as an honourable colleague in this effort I should place the late Professor J. C. Fields,  F.R.S.

There were four special fields in which he carried on research. I can but touch them.  First,  radio activity.  Out of these studies came his discovery of cosmic rays.  In 1902 he and Burton in Toronto, and Rutherford and Cooke in McGill were working on the same problem with somewhat different apparatus.  They discovered, and each confirmed the discovery of the other, the existence of the penetrating radiation that is now popularly called the cosmic ray, the ray that comes from somewhere out in the interstellar spaces of this vast universe.  On this very platform, when he last lectured as a visiting professor, he made us hear the effects of cosmic rays.  He turned from this field, probably because he saw that others were making it their special possession, into fields of his own.  One of these was the field of low temperature research.  The low temperature laboratory was established in the Physic Department by the aid of the National Research Council of Ottawa and the Carnegie Foundation.  It is interesting to know that practically ninety per cent of the apparatus in this laboratory was made in our own work shops in the Physics Building.  In 1916 Professor McLennan, in collaboration with Burton, Satterly, Dawes and Patterson, perfected a method of determining the percentage of helium present in natural gas.  In 1916 at the request of the Admiralty they made a survey of the natural gas resources of Canada and Dr. McLennan carried a report of the work to England.  About his war work I shall speak in a moment.  But in 1923 with the available supplies of this gas he liquefied helium in his laboratory here.  Previously that had been done only in Leyden, Holland, and there in limited quantities only.  Dr. McLennan had first to construct apparatus for the liquefaction of hydrogen, a very dangerous and difficult operation. Then he proceeded to the liquefaction of helium.  I may say that, since his departure, to show the foundations he laid, helium has been made seventy-five times in the laboratory without a single failure.  This led him on to investigations into the  conductivity of metals at low temperature, and thus began under him, and is still developing, a series of researches of the highest purely scientific value.

He turned also to spectroscopy.  For its size our spectroscopic laboratory is just as well-known as the low temperature laboratory.  In collaboration with some of his research students he discovered the presence of the green line in the light of the aurora which occurs at great height.  There is a green line in the spectrum of the aurora and also in the spectrum of the night sky.  From what does it come?  Professor McLennan proved experimentally that his green line originates from the electrical discharge in oxygen taking place at great heights, and arises from what might be called ionized oxygen.  This discovery brought to Dr. McLennan in 1928 the royal medal of the year from the Royal Society and that blue ribbon of Science- the Bakerian lectureship.  This was the starting point for more investigations into the physics of the upper atmosphere.  Time forbids me to speak of his work in connection with the Royal Canadian Institute and the National Council of Research.  While Dean of the School of Graduate Studies in this University naturally the stimulation of investigation was his dearest object.

But there is a further field to which he was to draw marked attention and with which I am more familiar personally.  This is the use of x-ray and radium for the treatment of malignant  tumours.  He was appointed in 1931 to the Provincial Royal Commission on the treatment of cancer.  The paper on the Physics of radiology, printed as an appendix to that report, was the joint work of himself and Professor Ireton and is, I think, one of the most valuable contributions yet made to the study of this branch of the subject.  When he went back to England on resigning his chair here, it seemed that a good Providence had been guiding his steps into a new field of investigation.  A discussion had arisen in England whether the use of what is called a "bomb", i.e., four grams of radium in a container, was advisable.  Professor McLennan joined in this discussion.  His observations at Dr Regaud's laboratory and clinic in Paris, and at Dr Forssell's  laboratory and clinic in Stockholm, had convinced him that the bomb treatment was, where possible, the best.  As a result of this discussion the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Surgeons of England appointed a Committee to investigate this particular problem of the value of the bomb.  Professor McLennan was made a member of this Committee.  The Committee's investigations convinced them of the value of the bomb in the treatment of malignant tumours, as Dr McLennan had from the outset maintained. He had so stepped into the front rank of those who were applying physics to therapy in the treatment of cancer that the Belgian Company which produces radium offered to loan him ten grams of radium for the purpose of scientific research on the irradiation of cancer.  He accepted the loan, and, as a result of his own indomitable energy and power of organization, there was assigned to him a ward in the Radium Institute where hopeless patients might be sent for treatment by a radium expert, and in connection with whose treatments he himself carefully prescribed and recorded the dosage, the distance, the result.  It was wonderful to go through the ward with him.  Some people who may have had differences of opinion with him in the past and knew only the combative side of his nature would have been amazed at the tenderness with which he would talk to these poor patients.  To them he would bring daily bunches of flowers from his own garden.  It must have been a great satisfaction to him at the end of his life to have been permitted to take no small part in one phase of the struggle against cancer.

Of his service in the Great War, one need not say much.  His work on helium led him to England.  There he served in the Admiralty, in charge of the Admiralty research laboratory 1917-1918 and later as Scientific Adviser to the Admiralty, 1918-1920.  The work of himself and the group he gathered about him on the magnetic detection of submarines aided greatly in reducing this menace to British shipping.  This University, as some of you will remember, received a letter of appreciation from the Admiralty formally expressing gratitude for the services so rendered.