For the want of a nail

Hammer and nails
The first flowering of science at McGill can be traced to William Dawson, a naturalist, paleontologist, and geologist. He was McGill’s principal for 38 years, from 1855 to 1893, and launched the study of science at McGill, working to secure funds to make his initiative a success.

The turn of the century brought about the culmination of that effort. Ernest Rutherford, a physicist who came to McGill in 1898, and Frederick Soddy, a chemist who arrived in 1900, were the interdisciplinary collaborators of the day, and studied the transmutation of the elements, both receiving Nobel prizes for the research they undertook at McGill. For the want of a nail it might have all been for naught, and McGill would be a very different place today.

Rutherford faced a dilemma when considering McGill’s offer of employment. If he took up the position offered, it would be at a considerably lower salary than that of a similar appointment in New Zealand—30 per cent lower. But he finally decided on McGill, despite the salary, because “the physical laboratory is one of the best buildings of its kind in the world and has a magnificent supply of apparatus…”

Rutherford was speaking of the state-of-the-art scientific laboratories which were built thanks to a gift in 1890 from the generous and visionary philanthropist W. C. Macdonald, a gift secured by William Dawson. Rutherford’s decision, based on his need for the labs created by Macdonald’s gift, marked the culmination of McGill’s first golden age of science.

There is a curious resonance of those events from a century ago, and recent developments at McGill: just last year we completed construction of the largest building project in McGill history, the Life Sciences Complex. The complex uses state-of-the-art facilities to bring together interdisciplinary researchers in the faculties of Science and Medicine. Indeed, many of our recent hires have been attracted to the University by virtue of the opportunity to work in these labs—although I cannot say if that is despite low McGill salaries, as it was for Rutherford! The funding of the Complex was begun in the first instance, and further funding was leveraged by a gift from a generous and visionary philanthropist, Dr. Francesco Bellini.

Why did I say, “…for the want of a nail?” The W. C. Macdonald building, that which attracted Rutherford to McGill, was constructed with no nails. Or rather, no iron nails, no iron radiators, no magnetic metals whatsoever. Rutherford’s experiments involved the precise measurement of beams of electrons. The beams can be deflected by magnetic materials, as you can easily check with an old TV, and iron nails would have a detrimental effect on his work.

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