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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What woke University of Toronto chemist John Polanyi on the morning of Oct. 15, 1986? It wasn't his alarm clock.

Answer A news wire service was calling to inform the professor that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

A turning point in the fortunes of the University was reached on Wednesday, October 15, 1986. This was the day the announcement was made that the 57-year-old John Polanyi had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work done at the University of Toronto thirty years earlier. He had been awakened early in the morning by a wire service telling him the unexpected news.

Polanyi had obtained his PhD from Manchester University, where his father, Michael Polanyi - a refugee from Nazi oppression - was a well-known professor of chemistry and philosopher of science. In 1956, after two years at the National Research Council in Ottawa and another two at Princeton University, the 27-year-old Polanyi had been appointed a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Toronto. He rose quickly through the ranks: he became a full professor at the age of 33, and in 1974 he was the first scientist to be named a University Professor.

John C. Polanyi
John Polanyi in his study at home in 1985, the year before he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
(photo: Harry Palmer)

President George Connell received the news later that morning at Simcoe Hall. When he could not reach Polanyi by telephone, he went to his house in Rosedale to congratulate him in person. He discovered Polanyi patiently explaining to a group of reporters the research that had brought him the prize. His research, Polanyi told them, had involved studying the infra-red radiation produced by chemical reactions in the creation of molecules.

'You damn well see you win a Nobel prize,' Bladen had told him.

The work eventually contributed to the development of chemical lasers. 'As a spin-off of the work we did,' he went on, 'we discovered that those chemical reactions formed vibrationally excited molecules and that you could put those molecules in a tube and infra-red radiation of very high intensity would come out. That's what's called the chemical laser.' The dean of arts and science in the late 1950s, Vincent Bladen, at the time had found the then substantial sum of $10,000 required for the infra-red spectrometer that Polanyi and his first graduate student, Ken Cashion, needed for their work. 'You damn well see you win a Nobel prize,' Bladen had told him.

By a happy coincidence, a large rally to seek greater funding had been planned for the next day in Convocation Hall by Toronto-area post-secondary institutions. The hall was packed, and between one and two thousand more people heard the proceedings over loudspeakers outside the building. At the very end of Connell's remarks, Polanyi entered the hall and received an exuberant two-minute standing ovation. He gave, in Connell's words, 'a quiet but intense and compelling defence of the academic enterprise.'

The rally, Connell wrote in a memorandum prepared at the time, was 'a really electrifying and memorable experience .

The rally, Connell wrote in a memorandum prepared at the time, was 'a really electrifying and memorable experience. The impact on the crowd and on the politicians must have been immense.' That afternoon, Connell heard that the Ontario cabinet was likely to add $50 million to the funding of Ontario universities.

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