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.
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.
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.
Polanyi in his study at home in 1985, the year before he won the
Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
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
'You damn well see
you win a Nobel prize,' Bladen had told him.
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 .
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.