Better know a Canadian functionary: the President of the National Research Council

Most armchair historians will know that some of the greatest eras of innovation came from the simple desire to kill as many people in the most efficient manner possible. To that end, in the middle of World War I Sir Robert Borden established the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a loose federation of scientific experts advising the government on new and exciting ways to slaughter Prussians. They proved such useful little busy-beavers that in 1928 it was reorganized into a Crown Corporation, the National Research Council, and given funds to build a laboratory, a handsome stone building in Ottawa at the edge of the Rideau Falls on Sussex Drive that was finished in 1932.

(The main NRC labs moved to a large campus on Montreal Road in the 1970s. The downtown labs now house the President’s office, its industrial relations offices, the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences [SIMS] and the NRC Institute for Biological Sciences [IBS]. It may be instructive at this juncture to point out these two facts: the IBS is a Class 3 biohazard laboratory, and it is three doors down from the Prime Minister’s Residence.)

The Presidents of the National Research Council of Canada have been:

Col. Rev. Henry Marshall Tory, 1928-35. A Nova Scotian, Tory went to McGill’s Wesleyan college and became an ordained Methodist minister before going back to school to study and teach mathematics, earning his D.Sc. in 1903. McGill sent him to the west coast in 1906 to set up the McGill University College of British Columbia (absorbed into UBC in 1915). He then went to Edmonton in 1908 to found the University of Alberta, and served as its president for 20 years. During World War I the government made him a Colonel and sent him to Europe to set up an education service for soldiers. The resultant Khaki University enrolled nearly 50,000 soldiers in the three years it was active (1917-19). As President of the NRC, Dr. Tory’s main goal was to get funding and laboratories. He retired in 1935, but came out to found Carleton College in Ottawa (now Carleton University) in 1942, serving as President until his death in 1947.

Gen. Hon. Andrew George Latta McNaughton CH CB CMG DSO CD PC, 1935-39. McNaughton was born in Moosomin, Sask., and attended McGill, earning an M.Sc. in civil engineering in 1912. He joined the militia in 1909 and was sent to France with the 4th Battery of the CEF in 1915. He rose quickly through the ranks by his artillery acumen, using an oscilloscope to pinpoint the exact locations of German heavy guns by their sound. He was at Sir Arthur Currie’s right hand at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and was promoted to Brigadier-General the day before the Armistice. He was Deputy Chief of the General Staff from 1922 to 1929 and Chief of the General Staff of the Canadian Army from 1929 to 1935, retiring to take the presidency of the NRC. He left the NRC at the outbreak of World War II to command the Canadian Army in Europe, resigning his command by 1943 over differences with the defence minister, James Ralston. Ralston resigned in 1944 over the Conscription Crisis, and Mackenzie King promoted McNaughton to full General and made him Minister of National Defense. He resigned as Minister in August 1945 after failing twice to be elected to Parliament. After the War, McNaughton chaired the UN Atomic Energy Commission. He died in 1966; his grandson is Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie CMM MSC MSM CD, former commander of the Canadian Army and rising star in the Liberal Party.

Chalmers Jack Mackenzie CC CMG MC FRS, 1939-52. Mackenzie was born in New Brunswick and earned a B.Eng. in civil engineering from Dalhousie, which he taught at USask from 1912 to 1932, when he accepted a job overseeing public works projects for the federal government. Mackenzie was a member of the Massey Commission of 1951, which laid the groundwork for the modern state-sponsored culture industry in Canada. Mackenzie left the NRC in 1952 to serve as the inaugural chairman of Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd.

Edgar William Richard Steacie OBE FRS, 1952-62. Born in Montreal, “Ned” Steacie earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from McGill and became a world-renowned expert on free radical kinetics – the way individual molecules tend to move around. He was elected president of the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1961. He died in office in 1962.

Bristow Guy Ballard, 1962-67. Ballard earned a B.Sc. in electrical engineering from Queen’s and worked for Westinghouse for 5 years, developing high-speed electric trains. He was hired by the NRC in 1930 and worked his way up to director of the Radio and Electrical Engineering Division. Ballard became acting president after Dr. Steacie’s death and was appointed President in the last few days of the Diefenbaker government; Ballard didn’t particularly want to be President, as he was very deaf.

William George Schneider OC FRS, 1967-80. Schneider earned a Ph.D. in pure chemistry from McGill and spent the last half of WWII at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He served as president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry from 1983 to 1985. Schneider’s presidency saw the first NRC fellow to win a Nobel Prize: the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which went to Dr. Gerhard Herzberg.

John Larkin Kerwin CC, 1980-1989.The first French-Canadian to serve as President, Kerwin earned a D.Sc. in physics from the Université Laval, where he went on to serve as its first lay rector. Dr. Kerwin was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1989, the year he quit the NRC to serve as the first president of the Canada Space Agency.

Pierre O. Perron, 1989-1994. A graduate of the metallurgy program at ULaval, Perron was serving as Deputy Minister of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources when he was appointed President.

Arthur J. Carty, 1994-2004. The English-born Carty earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Nottingham, then worked as a chemist at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Carty left the NRC in 2004 to serve as a scientific advisor to the Prime Minister.

Dr. Michael Raymont (acting), 2004-05.

Pierre Coulombe, 2005-2010. After earning a Ph.D. in experimental medicine from ULaval, Dr. Coulombe was CEO of various private medical research firms in Quebec before coming to the NRC.

John McDougall, 2010-now. McDougall earned a B.Sc. in civil engineering from the University of Alberta and had a long and successful career in petroleum engineering, capped off by 12 years as president of the Alberta Research Council before becoming president of the NRC.

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