Dr. Henry Thode
1910 - 1997

President of McMaster from 1961 to 1972, Harry Thode made the University what it is today

Dr. Henry Thode

Reprinted with permission from the McMaster Times, Vol. 12, No. 3, Spring 1997.   Thanks to S. Welstead, Office of Public Relations, University Advancement, McMaster University.

The President who led McMaster through its most ambitious era of growth, Dr. Henry G. Thode, died peacefully at his home in Dundas on March 22, 1997, at the age of 86.   He will be remembered by colleagues, alumni and friends around the world for his inspired leadership, his contributions to the field of atomic energy, and his selfless devotion to McMaster.

University President Dr. Peter George praised the contribution of the man who helped define the modern McMaster.   "Harry Thode was an outstanding scholar, an inspiring teacher and mentor, a remarkable visionary and leader.   McMaster is what it is today because of Harry Thode.   His career, his ambitions, his ideals, his belief in, and commitment to McMaster are treasured memories, and point the way to a bright future for McMaster."

McMaster's worldwide reputation in science is due largely to Dr. Thode's own distinguished research in nuclear science and geochemistry, and to his remarkable skill in identifying promising young researchers for appointment to the faculty.

Born in Dundurn, Saskatchewan, Dr. Thode received his B.Sc. in 1930 and his M.Sc. in 1932 at the University of Saskatchewan.   In 1934, he took his PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago.

While in Pittsburgh, he met his mentor, Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, who encouraged him to accept a post as a research assistant at Columbia University in New York.

Dr. Thode began his distinguished career with McMaster in 1939 as an associate professor of chemistry.   He was made a full professor in 1944, named director of research in 1947, head of chemistry in 1948, principal of Hamilton College in 1949, vice-president of the University in 1957, and, in 1961, succeeded Dr. George Gilmour as President and Vice Chancellor.   Dr. Thode retired as President in 1972.

The pioneer in nuclear chemistry became involved in the atomic energy project of the National Research Council at Montreal during 1943, taking a leave from his University duties to carry out research.   He constructed a mass spectrometer - the first one built in Canada - to conduct isotopic measurements for several European scientists at the Montreal Lab who were involved in the NRC project.

Dr. Thode's wartime research made significant contributions to the design and operation of nuclear reactors and was key in the development of McMaster as a research institution.   It led to the creation, in 1948, of Hamilton College, a separate science facility with its own board which existed until 1957 when McMaster, initially a Baptist University, became a nonsectarian institution.

In addition to his research in the fields of mass spectrometry, nuclear fission and isotope chemistry, Dr. Thode also conducted research in the uses of radioisotopes in the diagnosis and treatment of disease and in 1948 helped establish a medical research department at McMaster.   Charles Jaimet of the McGregor Clinic later teamed up with Dr. Thode and his scientists, and the group carried out important early isotopic studies of thyroid physiology which eventually led to a sensitive radioactive iodine test for measuring thyroid activity.

Dr. Henry Thode installation

Visionary Leader: At his installation in the Drill Hall on October 27, 1961, Dr. Thode was clothed in the Presidential robes by Dean of Arts and Science Dr. Herbert Armstrong (far left), while Dean of Theology Dr. Nathaniel Parker (right) stands ready with the President's hat.    Chancellor Roy L. Kellock (centre) declared Dr. Thode "rightly installed as President."

Dr. Thode succeeded George Gilmour after 11 years as President.   In his installation address, President Thode called for the training and development of "top teachers and scholars" in Canadian universities, and for an increase in support of research and scholarly work "which can best be done in a university environment."   He rejected the notion of conflict between the arts and sciences, stating, "We must build up mutual respect between the humanities and the scientist on one hand, and engineers, technologists, administrators and businessmen on the other." (Photograph from
McMaster News, Spring 1962)

In 1962, in his first message to graduating students as President of the University, Dr. Thode said, "It has been said that for the first time we are in a position to give conscious forethought to the kind of world we would like, and the kind of changes we wish to make.   This is the real challenge to the younger generation in the new age."

He took up that challenge himself with spirit and vision.   His Presidency at McMaster saw a construction boom that included the Nuclear Reactor (the first nuclear reactor on a university campus in the British Commonwealth), the arts complex, the senior sciences building, the engineering building, student residences and the $100-million Health Sciences Centre.

Former associate vice-president (University services) Jack Evans remembers Dr. Thode's unassuming manner and infectious enthusiasm for his vision of McMaster's future.   "As he interviewed me for the position of University registrar in 1966, we talked about the massive expansion program then in progress.    There I was with Harry on the floor of the President's office, caught up in the excitement as we pored over plans for new construction.   I decided then and there this was a place I wanted to stay."

Over the course of his life, Dr. Thode was honored by all the world's most eminent bodies.   He was made a member of the Order of the British Empire after the war, a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1954, and was one of the first 10 Canadians to be named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1967.    McMaster was one of 11 universities to award him an honorary degree.

At the 1978 opening of his namesake facility at McMaster, the H. G. Thode Library of Science and Engineering, Dr. Thode said, "I'm not unmindful of the great debt I owe to McMaster for taking me in some 40 years ago as a young Professor of chemistry.   McMaster gave me the opportunity and challenge to grow and develop as a teacher and scientist, and later, to serve as President, and all in a very stimulating and challenging environment with so many wonderful colleagues. It has been an exciting time."

He is survived by his wife, Sadie, three sons, eight grandchildren and one great-grandson.




Career highlights:

McMaster Reactor

In 1958, as vice-president of the University, director of research and principal of Hamilton College, Dr. Thode inspects a scale model of the soon-to-be-built McMaster Nuclear Reactor with research physicist Dr. Bill Fleming (left) and assistant to the principal of Hamilton College Mike Hedden.   The university had the unique distinction of having the first nuclear research reactor on a university campus in the British Commonwealth.


Health Sciences

In the late 1960s, President Thode initiated the construction of the Health Sciences Centre and Faculty of Health Sciences, a facility which cost more than $100 million to construct.   Present at the opening were (left to right): architect Eberhard Ziedier, President Thode, founding dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Dr. John Evans, who was personally recruited by Thode to head the faculty, and project manager Dennis Hotton.   Thode's presidency saw a construction boom that included the Health Sciences Centre, the reactor, the arts complex, the senior sciences building (now the Bourns Building), the engineering building and student residences.   (Photograph by Tom Bochsler, courtesy of the Faculty of Health Sciences library).


McMaster Reactor

In 1991, the University celebrated President Emeritus Thode's 50 continuous years receiving Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC) research grants.    He cuts an anniversary cake with his wife, Sadie.   In the background is NSERC President Peter Morand.   Said Thode of his career: "There were frustrations, and Murphy's Law certainly played its part, but the satisfaction outweighed anything else."   Thode said much of his success was owed to the bright and creative students he worked with and to intelligent and efficient secretaries who kept him out of trouble.   Secretary Dreena Burrows worked with him for some 18 years.    (Photo from McMaster Courier, 1991).


A Tribute to the Man Who Defined Modern-Day McMaster

H.G. Thode
President Emeritus, Henry George Thode 1910-1997

From The McMaster Courier, April 7, 1997

Colleagues remember a fair, unselfish and devoted man

President Emeritus Harry Thode, one of this university’s great visionaries, will be remembered by colleagues and friends for his inspiration, his fairness, his unselfishness and his devotion to McMaster University.

Thode, the man who defined the modem McMaster, and a pioneer in nuclear science who was revered around the world for his contributions to the field of atomic energy, died on March 22 at his home in Dundas.   He was 86.

University President Peter George praised the contribution of the man who helped define the modem McMaster.   "Harry Thode was a remarkable scholar, an inspiring teacher and mentor, a remarkable visionary and. leader.   McMaster is what it is today cause of Harry Thode.   His career, his ambitions, his ideals, his belief in, and commitment to McMaster are treasured memories, and point the way to a bright future for McMaster."

Retirees Association president Jack Evans remembers Thode's unassuming manner and an infectious enthusiasm for his vision of McMaster's future.   "As he interviewed me for the position of University registrar (1966), we talked about the massive expansion program then in progress.   There I was, with Harry on the floor of the President’s office, caught up in the excitement as we pored over plans for new construction.   I decided then and there this was a place I wanted to stay."

Mel Preston, professor emeritus of physics & astronomy, who knew Thode for some 45 years and was hired by him and became dean of graduate studies during the mid-sixties, says Thode made McMaster the research-intensive university that it is today.   While Thode worked for the development of sciences at McMaster, he also supported the arts.

Thode fought for the creation of a medical centre on the University campus, despite objections from the Westdale and Hamilton communities to the establishment of another hospital in the neighbourhood and on lands belonging to the Royal Botanical Gardens.

McMaster's worldwide reputation in science is due largely to Henry Thode's own distinguished research in nuclear science and geochemistry and to his remarkable skill in identifying promising young researchers for appointment to the Faculty.    Several colleagues recalled Thode's ability to persuade the most accomplished of academics to join the faculty at McMaster.   "He would meet someone in Europe and decide to hire him and then that person would show up and be a member of a department," said one.   "He'd say 'You come and be the theorist and you three guys will have the job of building the department'," said another, adding that Thode assured researchers that their work would be supported.

"It would be hard to find a person who didn't think that he was fair and devoted to the good of the University and he was very interested in seeing the development of interesting science," says Preston.   "His interests were unselfish - he was for the University and its growth."

Quoted recently in the Hamilton Spectator, President Emeritus Alvin Lee described Thode as "a top scientist who provided sound leadership and a powerful research base for the sciences, arts and professional faculties."

Thode remained an active member of the research and McMaster University communities until his death, coming into the university most days.   In 1996 a paper he co-wrote, entitled "Stable Isotope Study of the Pyrite Formation in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene Sediments of the Black Sea", was published in Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta.

Says Preston, "It’s not unusual for an emeritus professor to continue to carry out research, but it is very unusual, I’ll say, to continue that research until you’re 86 years old."

Thode and his wife, Sadie, enjoyed spending their summers at a farm in Lynden.    He is survived by his wife, three sons, eight grandchildren and one great-grandson.



Pioneer had a very distinguished career

Born in Dundurn, Saskatchewan, Henry (Harry) Thode received his B.Sc. in 1930 and his M.Sc. in 1932 at the University of Saskatchewan.   In 1934, he took is PhD in physical chemistry at University of Chicago.

While in Pittsburgh, Thode met mentor Nobel laureate Harold Urey, who encouraged him to accept a post as a research assistant at Columbia University in New York.    He later worked for two years as a research chemist with the U.S. Rubber Company at Passiac, New Jersey.

Thode began his distinguished career with McMaster in 1939 as an associate professor of chemistry.   He was made a full professor in 1944.   He was named the University's director of research in 1947, head of-the chemistry department from 1948 to 1952, principal of Hamilton College in 1949 ,vice-president in 1957, and in 1961 succeeded George Gilmour as president and vice chancellor.    He retired as president in 1972.

Isotope separation columns

Henry Thode (back left) with J. Zeigler (left) and F. Walking, holds sections of isotope separation columns built in the light shaft of Hamilton Hall in 1940.   These columns were essential to the construction of Canada's first mass spectrometer, built by Thode, and were funded by his first NRC research grants

The pioneer in nuclear chemistry became involved in the atomic energy project of the National Research Council at Montreal during 1943, taking leave from his McMaster duties to carry out research.   He constructed a mass spectrometer - the first one built in Canada - to conduct isotopic measurements for several European scientists at the Montreal Lab who were involved in the NRC project.   His wartime research significant contributions to the design and operation of nuclear reactors and was key in development of McMaster as a research institution.    It led to the creation, in 1948, of Hamilton College, a separate science facility with its own board which existed until 1957 when McMaster, initially Baptist University, became a non-sectarian institution.

In addition to his research in the fields of mass spectrometry, nuclear fission and isotope chemistry, Thode also conducted research in the uses of radioisotopes in the diagnosis and treatment of disease and in 1948 helped establish a medical research department at McMaster.   Charles Jaimet of the McGregor Clinic later teamed up with Thode and his scientists, and the group carried out important early isotopic studies of thyroid physiology which eventually led to a sensitive radioactive iodine test for measuring thyroid activity.

Thode was also instrumental in development of the University’s first graduate programs.   Indeed, he felt that many of his students working on war-related projects were capable of this kind of work.   Others, such as E. W. R. Steacie of the National Research Council, agreed.    Steacie wrote that a McMaster M.Sc. in chemistry "is as good as a PhD in most places."   The University’s first graduate program in chemistry eventually received approval around 1950.

Thode's contributions to research, business and community affairs included the National Research Council of Canada, the Defence Research Board of Canada, the Chedoke and St. Joscph's Hospitals, Atomic Energy of Canada, Stelco, the Ontario Research Foundation, and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

His leadership in science and education was honoured at home and abroad.   He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for contributions to atomic research during the Second World War.   In 1954, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, an honour not often granted outside the United Kingdom.   He was a fellow, and had served as president, of both the Chemical Institute of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada.   In 1967, he was one of the first 10 eminent Canadians, and the first scientist to be named a Companion of the Order of Canada.   He received the Order of Ontario in 1989.

McMaster was one of 11 universities to give him an honourary degree.

At the opening of McMaster's science and engineering library, which was named for him in the late 1970s, Thode said: "I'm not unmindful of the great debt I owe to McMaster for taking me in some 40 years ago as a young professor of chemistry.    McMaster gave me the opportunity and challenge to grow and develop as a teacher and scientist, and later, to serve as President, and all in a very stimulating and challenging .environment with so many wonderful colleagues.    It has been an exciting time."

(Sources: The Hamilton Spectator, Contact, minutes of the McMaster Senate, The McMaster Courier, Hamilton College News, Ascent, Globe and Mail, Revitalizing Medical Education by William Spaulding, McMaster University: The Early Years in Hamilton, 1930-1957 by Charles M. Johnston, and the Tbode, Mills and Faculty of Health Sciences libraries.)


Dr. Harry Thode: Quiet Man of Science

From Ascent, the defunct quarterly magazine of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Vol. 9, No. 4, Spring 1991, six years before Dr. Thode's death.
by Gil Murray (with minor edits)

It's a sad fact that Canada's pioneers of atomic energy are hardly famous in their own country.   Dr. Harry Thode is one of those pioneers.   Colleagues who know Thode, however, have honoured him time and time again as a key Canadian scientist who helped capture the power of the atom for peaceful purposes.   He is still active today at 80, a respected dean of nuclear science.

The Canadian nuclear industry's success springs largely from the early work of Canadian scientists like Thode and his contemporaries.   The CANDU electric power generating reactor is an example of this success.   Everytime Canadians switch on their tvs or stereos, they benefit from the Canadian research that led to the creation of the CANDU.


Thode became part of the "growing up" of the atomic age, and his professors and later colleagues were among those who succeeded in harnessing atomic energy for practical and peaceful purposes.
The road to the CANDU began in the 1930s with discoveries in nuclear research later accelerated by the Second World War.   Thode became involved with nuclear science in the mid-1930s as a close associate of Dr. Harold Urey, discoverer of heavy water and a Nobel Prize winner.

Thode's analytical work with Urey at New York's Columbia University later proved to be a boon for Canada.   During the war, while developing new science courses at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Thode became a key player in the Canadian Atomic Energy Project, based in Montréal.   The project was the Anglo-Canadian version of the Manhattan Project, the United States' drive to produce an atomic bomb.   His work in isotope analysis was an important part of the wartime program that ultimately evolved into Canada' nuclear energy industry.

At McMaster, Thode helped organize the first post-war international conference on nuclear chemistry.   In 1959, he was a member of the first Canadian team, headed by National Research Council (NRC) President E.W.R. Steacie, to visit the Soviet Union to establish a program for scientific exchange.

Thode was McMaster president from 1961 to 1972.   Previously, as head of science, he contributed to great advances in nuclear research and education at the university.   He directed the building of the first nuclear reactor at a university in the British Commonwealth.   Opened in 1957, the pool-type, five-megawatt research reactor is still operational.   It is used in many science and engineering experiments involving graduate students and also supplies isotopes for diagnosis of disease at the university's medical centre.

Thode served as an AECL consultant from 1945 to 1951, and from 1966 to 1981 was a director and member of AECL's executive committee.   Last December he was honoured by NRC and McMaster University, on the 50th anniversary of his first Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) grant.

Born of a pioneer Saskatchewan farm family, Thode graduated from the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Chicago in chemistry and physics.   He became part of the "growing up" of the atomic age, and his professors and later associates in both Canada and the United States were among those who succeeded in harnessing atomic energy for practical and peaceful purposes.

Thode's earliest mentors included Dr. Walter Murray, a leading educator from the Maritimes and founding president of the University of Saskatchewan, and C.J. MacKenzie, former dean of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan and president of the NRC in 1939.


Influences

"These men really influenced my career," Thode recalls. "They'd had excellent training and had gone to the better graduate schools in North America."

Another major figure with whom Thode became associated, Dr. Harold C. Urey, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 for the discovery of deuterium, or heavy hydrogen [which when combined with oxygen forms heavy water].   Heavy water ultimately proved to be the best nuclear reactor moderator for slowing down fast neutrons released in atomic fission, thus making them more effective in producing further fissions.

After graduating with a PhD in chemistry and physics from the University of Chicago in 1934, Thode entered academic life as a college professor.   He was determined to obtain a research position after two years of teaching, and became interested in isotope chemistry and the possibility of working with Harold Urey.

The opportunity to work with Urey at Columbia came about in 1936.   Hearing that Urey was attending a scientific conference in Pittsburgh, Thode managed to run into Urey in his hotel lobby and proposed that he join Urey's Columbia team.   Thode recalls: "When I told him I was born and raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, he said, 'farmers' sons always make good scientists.'   He'd been born and raised on a farm in Indiana, then later in Montana, south of Saskatchewan. We had much the same background."

Professors at the University of Chicago had already spoken to Urey about Thode, who was hired on the spot.   Thode and his new wife Sadie moved to New York in 1936.    For the next three years, he headed up the isotope separation laboratory at Columbia, extending Urey's research to separation and analysis of the isotopes of other elements.    Isotopes are different atomic forms of an element, such as uranium, having the same atomic number but with different masses.   Nuclear fission, the splitting of the atomic nucleus, results in the accumulation of many different isotopes.


Thode joins McMaster

Two weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, Thode joined McMaster as a chemistry professor responsible for mounting a program in physics and chemistry.    One early project was to build Canada's first mass spectrometer.

In widespread use since, the mass spectrometer determines the precise mass and percentage of all isotopes making up a sample.   This process was vital to the joint British-U.S.-Canadian drive to produce fissionable materials and to develop nuclear reactors.   The search for the most efficient control of atomic fission had been going on for some years.   If the Germans succeeded first, they would win the war.   The British atomic research team moved to Canada to avoid German air attacks and, by 1942, a large number of high-ranking British, French and European nuclear scientists had joined the newly formed Anglo-Canadian Atomic Energy Project at Montréal.

C.J. Mackenzie busily recruited Canadian scientists, among them Harry Thode.    By 1942, relieved of his duties for the war's duration, Thode was playing an important role in the wartime Canadian Atomic Energy Project.   His initial advantage to the project was that he had already built Canada's first, and at the time its only, mass spectrometer.

Thode and his team began their research immediately.   "Our goal was not the building of an atomic bomb," Thode explains.   "Our interests, as they had been since the beginning of the war, were in the peaceful uses of atomic energy."

It would have taken a year to build a mass spectrometer at the Montréal lab.    But the scientists did not have a year to spare.   Thode already had the only such instrument in Canada, but it was located in Hamilton.    The lab reluctantly gave him permission to do the top-secret work there, and eventually all the isotope analysis for the entire Montréal project.    Thode increased his team and built more instruments at Hamilton.

Thode spent a good part of 1942-1945 shuttling between Hamilton and Montréal, reporting on the continual testing by mass spectroscopy of materials for the Montréal program.   He and a small team of associates worked endless hours in a top-secret, sealed-off section of McMaster's science building.

The Montréal project needed an accurate way to measure abundances of uranium isotopes.   Scientists had proven that one such isotope, U-235, was fissionable by neutron capture and had the potential of starting and sustaining a nuclear chain reaction with a continual release of energy.   A mass spectrometer could produce a mass spectrographic display of the uranium isotopes present.   The scientists could then measure the abundance of the two isotopes, U-235 and U-238, precisely and accurately.

In 1943-44 Thode and his associates put a tiny sample of the fission gases xenon and krypton - then available from the Montréal laboratory - into a mass spectrometer for the first time.   To their delight, Thode recalls, "a beautiful mass spectrum" appeared showing five isotopic masses for xenon and five isotopic masses for krypton.   The mass spectrometer made possible a sketch of the whole mass yield curve for uranium-235 neutron fission, vital information for operating and controlling a nuclear reactor.

"After the war," Thode says, "a former classmate of mine who had done wartime work at Los Alamos, New Mexico (the Manhattan Project research centre) told me that his colleagues there had been surprised by our ability to obtain so much information from so small a sample of gases."


Main contribution

Research on fission products was probably the McMaster group's most important contribution to the Canadian nuclear program during the war, Thode says.   He and his team showed for the first time that the mass spectrometer could identify stable and long-lived isotopes of fission product elements and measure their yields accurately.

"The build-up of fission products and how uranium splits was the area that we were working in and made our most important contributions to," Thode says.


Thode's scientific reputation grew to where he was one of only two Canadian scientists able to obtain rock and soil samples brought from the moon.
Over the years, Thode's scientific reputation grew to where he was one of only two Canadian scientists able to obtain rock and soil samples brought from the moon by the first NASA lunar expedition.   A Thode team examined the ratio between sulphur isotopes in the samples for evidence of biological change.   This experiment, they thought, would indicate the past presence of life on the moon.   They found no such evidence.    Put on display at McMaster University under tight security, the 15 grams of moon rocks, worth $1 million a gram, drew large crowds.

Last December, Thode took a break from his work to be honoured by McMaster University and NSERC, which gave the scientist his first $500 research grant and continues to fund his isotope research today.

Although he has received 11 honourary degrees and numerous awards and medals, most people comment on Thode's quiet, shy, gentlemanly manner, and his careful consideration of all the facts before arriving at a decision.

"He's a very modest person," said Dr. Ronald P. Graham, longtime associate, chemist, and former dean of science at McMaster.   "He's also a man of principle.   If he thought something through and arrived at a position you don't happen to like, you'd better argue strongly because it's going to take a lot to change his mind."

Despite his reputation for being shy and quiet, Harry Thode's actions over the last 50 years have spoken louder than words and have contributed significantly to Canada's nuclear program.   Stanley Hatcher, president and CEO of AECL, goes one step further, attributing Canadians' quality of life to the early research carried out by Thode and his colleagues.

"(Thode's) wartime research on behalf of the National Research Council helped lay the foundation for the post-war development of the CANDU reactor," explains Hatcher, "which now generates safe, clean and reliable electricity in Canada and abroad."


Gil Murray is a freelance writer living in Burlington, Ontario.   He is a former director of information at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.


[Canadian Nuclear Society]