The black tie and the purple tie

Neckities in a rowIn my office I keep two ties for emergencies.  I do not mean emergencies like preventing a fire or helping someone with a health problem.  Rather I mean occasions where I should be wearing a tie, but regrettably I have shown up to work without one.  One tie is black, one is purple.  I have never worn the purple tie, though I may one day.  I have worn the black tie once.

In the fall of 2009, I received a call that I was to be interviewed on television on very short notice.  Usually such interviews involve our Principal or one of our Vice-Principals, but they were unfortunately unavailable.  Being without a tie I looked at my two emergency ties, and picked the black one.

Before the fall of 2009, a total of six McGill faculty members and former students had been associated with Nobel prizes.  Here are their names: Ernest Rutherford (Chemistry prize of 1908) Macdonald Chair in Physics 1898-1907; Frederick Soddy (Chemistry prize of 1921) Demonstrator in Chemistry 1900-1902; Andrew Schally (Physiology prize of 1977) BSc 55, PhD 57, DSc 79; Val Logsdon Fitch (Physics prize of 1980) BEng 48; David Hunter Hubel (Physiology prize of 1981) BSc 47, MDCM 51, DSc 78; and Rudolph Marcus (Chemistry prize of 1992), BSc 43, PhD 46, DSc 88.

In the fall of 2009, this list was increased to eight as two former McGill students received Nobel prizes: Jack Szostak (Medicine prize of 2009) BSc 72; and Willard Boyle (Physics prize of 2009) BSc 47, MSc 48, PhD 50.

This was the emergency necessitating my use of the black tie.

The television interviewer asked me many questions about Science at McGill, and about Nobel prizes, and I admit that I gave many answers which I would not care to have heard broadcast.  For example, I was asked does this say anything about the quality of McGill’s Science Faculty – I answered, no actually, as the work for which Drs. Szostak and Boyle were celebrated was done subsequent to their departure from McGill.

But I did say, correctly, that these prizes reflected the quality of the students we have had, and continue to have at McGill, as well as the quality of the education McGill has provided, and continues to provide.  And I said, on behalf of the faculty, the students, and the support staff of McGill, that we could not be more proud.  This I got right as well.  I was grateful that the editor of the interview only left in these two correct responses.

I never met Willard Boyle, who died in May of 2011.  In the autobiographical notes on the Nobel site, he is generous in his recollection of his McGill experiences.  Jack Szostak later told me that they shared private reminiscences about McGill at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.

And, yes, Jack I have met.  In the fall of 2010, he was a featured speaker at our undergraduate research conference, and in May of 2011, Jack received an honourary doctorate from McGill.  He impressed everyone here with his accomplishments and with his friendly down-to-earth low-key nature.   He connected immediately and intuitively with our students on both visits.  As an example, at the convocation dinner, he looked across the room and said to me, is that the student we had lunch with in the fall?  When I said yes, Jack got up and walked across the room to talk to the young student and renew acquaintances, making the student’s day, and impressing the heck out of me.

Finally, a word about the purple tie which I have never worn.  I received this as a gift from a McGill professorial colleague when I started as Dean in 2005.  Subsequently, my colleague, who was a BSc student at McGill like Drs. Schally, Hubel, Marcus, Boyle and Szostak, has won all the major national and many international awards in a particular area of scientific research.  I appreciate the gift of the purple tie, but I confess it is kind of ugly, presumably chosen to suggest my transformation from iconoclastic researcher to iconoclastic administrator.  Nevertheless, I have an occasion in mind, which may or may not ever occur, where the purple tie from my colleague will see use.

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