Chalmers Jack Mackenzie


by Gerhard Herzberg, F.R.S.C.

CHALMERS JACK MACKENZIE, one of the great figures in the development of science and technology in Canada, died at the age of 95 at his home in Ottawa on 26 February 1984.

Mackenzie was born 10 July 1888 in the town of St. Stephen, N.B., the youngest of six children.   His father was a master mason and builder.   Jack studied engineering at Dalhousie University and obtained the degree of Bachelor of Engineering in April 1909.   His association with the University of Saskatchewan began in October 1912 when he accepted the offer of Dr. Walter Murray (president of the newly founded university) to initiate the teaching of engineering at the university.   He interrupted his teaching just before the first war by enrolling at Harvard University for graduate work, obtaining his M.C.E. degree there in record time.   In 1916 Mackenzie, together with other staff and students of the Engineering School of the University of Saskatchewan, enlisted for war service and served with the Canadian expeditionary force in France until the end of the war.   Mackenzie reached the rank of Captain and was awarded the Military Cross.   In 1920 Mackenzie was appointed the first Dean of the newly organized College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.   As "Dean Mackenzie" he was known to friends, colleagues, students and others even after he left the University.

Mackenzie's connection with the National Research Council started in 1935, then he was appointed a member of its Honorary Advisory Council.   This appointment came just at the time when General McNaughton replaced H.M. Tory as President of the Council.   Mackenzie took an active part in the deliberations of the Council and on many occasions showed his grasp of the needs of NRC and of Canadian science in general.   Therefore, it did not surprise anybody that at the beginning of the last war, when McNaughton became commander of the Canadian expeditionary force, Mackenzie was unanimously proposed and selected by the government to be acting president for the duration.   Fully aware of what needed to be done, Mackenzie entered this, the most important period of his life, with determination, hard work, and wise decisions; the result was a complete transformation of NRC and a superb contribution of Canadian science and technology to the war effort.

It was Mackenzie who maintained and improved the high-level liaison among British, Canadian, and U.S. scientists; it was he who had to arrange for the many demands that were made by the armed forces for scientific studies and appropriate equipment, involving a growth by a factor of ten of the NRC budget and personnel, and removing many road-blocks.   It was Mackenzie who had to tell Mr. Churchill that the idea of using floating icebergs as airfields had been studied by NRC and found unfeasible.   And it was he who later, during the war, had to think about plans for the post-war period.   Some of these plans had to do with the development of nuclear energy and here again Mackenzie showed clear recognition of the needs, and an ability to find the right people to manage their development.   He also showed great foresight in grooming E.W.R. Steacie to become his successor as President of NRC.   Before that happened, C.D. Howe (then Minister of Reconstruction) asked Mackenzie to accept the presidency of the newly formed Crown Company, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., where again for two years he demonstrated the foresight and vision needed to put this Company on the right track.   After retiring from Chalk River, he served for eight years as President of the Atomic Energy Control Board.

Another important action that Mackenzie took for the post-war period was to prepare the splitting-off of all defence-related work from NRC, and forming the Defence Research Board.   Although a few years ago DRB was integrated into the Department of Defence, at the time, i.e., immediately after the war, its formation as an independent agency similar to NRC was an important step.

When Mackenzie took over as acting president of NRC he made it a point to report regularly by letter to General McNaughton, then in the United Kingdom, about the progress of work at NRC and McNaughton always replied.   This correspondence, at the time marked "secret," was published in 1975 by the University of Toronto Press (edited by M.W. Thistle, with an introduction and epilogue by Mackenzie).   It is an invaluable document for future historians of science in Canada.   How Mackenzie found time to write these detailed letters in the hectic days of the last war, and in addition to dictate a daily diary, is most remarkable and can only be ascribed to his exceptional self-discipline.

Mackenzie was a man of vision: as a young man, in setting up the engineering school at the University of Saskatchewan, he foresaw the needs that would arise thirty years later; his mark is still active in the present engineering faculty.   As a member of the Council of NRC in the thirties he foresaw the coming war and pressed for measures on which he could build when he took over as acting president.   All through the war his penetrating assessment of each new situation made it possible for NRC to make its great contribution to the war effort.   He prepared, with equal vision, for the post-war period.

Of Mackenzie it can truly be said that he immediately recognized a good scientist when he saw one.   His record in choosing the right people for the various positions at NRC was uncanny.   The selection of Steacie as his successor has already been mentioned; there are many others.   Although an engineer by training, Mackenzie clearly recognized that basic research is at the bottom of all applications of science in all parts of technologv: he recognized (now-a-days so often forgotten) that you have to give top-rate scientists (pure or applied) the freedom to do what they consider interesting and feasible if you want the best results from them.   He never gave himself the air of a scientist but he understood the problems facing scientists; he understood the conditions under which they do their best work and he knew people: he liked them and they liked him.   This quality, and his tenacity, his self-discipline, his vision, are basic for understanding the success of his many-facetted achievements.

Soon after his retirement from AECL Mackenzie accepted the position of Chancellor of Carleton University which he occupied from 1954 to 1968.   He took an active part in the planning of the new campus and the transition from college to full university.   He much enjoyed these activities, since they gave him much contact and association with the academic life of Ottawa.

Mackenzie's first wife, by whom he had one son (Peter), died in 1922.   In 1924 he married Geraldine Gallon who for fifty-two years gave him loving support both in Saskatoon and in Ottawa.   They had two daughters, Sylvia and Eleanor.

Mackenzie was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1941, of the Royal Society of London in 1946.   In addition to many honorary degrees he received the Kelvin Medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers (U.K.) in 1953, an honour that pleased him greatly.   He was in the first group to be made Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967, and the second recipient of the Royal Bank Award in 1968.   More than these and many other awards he appreciated the loyalty and affection of all those who came in touch with him during his long life.

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