Henry George Thode General Physics, Subatomic Particles, Optics, Biophysics, Theoretical Physics

Pioneer in nuclear science; designed and built Canada's first mass spectrometer, built McMaster University to a respected research facility.

"There were frustrations, and Murphy's Law certainly played its part, but the satisfaction outweighed anything else."

The Story

Thode combined a distinguished career at McMaster University with pioneering work in nuclear chemistry. One of a group of top European and Canadian scientists working in the top-secret race to tame the atom during World War II, Thode designed and built Canada's first mass spectrometer. With the spectrometer, scientists could precisely measure the mass and percentage of all isotopes, and could produce fissionable materials for use in nuclear reactors. Thode's work ultimately resulted in the development of the CANDU reactor and Canada's nuclear energy industry.

Hired as an associate professor of chemistry at McMaster in 1939, Thode was made a full professor in 1944. He was named the University's director of research in 1947, head of the chemistry department from 1948 to 1952, principal of Hamilton College in 1949, vice-president in 1957, and president and vice chancellor in 1961.

The nuclear reactor Thode brought to McMaster was the first on a university campus in the British Commonwealth. This plus his wartime research were vital to the development of McMaster as a research institution. Following the war, Thode and his team researched the uses of radioisotopes in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. They worked with Charles Jaimet of the McGregor Clinic to carry out important early isotopic studies of thyroid physiology, work which led to a sensitive radioactive iodine test for measuring thyroid activity. After the first moon landing in 1969, Thode scored a coup for McMaster by getting pieces of lunar rocks and examining their nuclear structure.

Thode also spearheaded the development of the University's first graduate programs. Under his leadership, McMaster became a top research institution with a world renowned medical school and hospital and a strong engineering school. He made contributions to research, business and community affairs including the National Research Council of Canada, the Defence Research Board of Canada, the Chedoke and St. Joseph's Hospitals, Atomic Energy of Canada, Stelco, the Ontario Research Foundation, and the Royal Botanical Gardens. He served as President of both the Chemical Institute of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada).

After retiring, Thode remained active at McMaster until his death. His last paper, co-written and published in Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta in 1996, appeared when he was 86 years old.

Sources: Canada's Nuclear Pioneers; "Lives Lived," Globe and Mail; Photo: Canada's Nuclear Pioneers.

The Person

September 10, 1910
Dundurn, Saskatchewan
Date of Death
March 22, 1997
Place of Death
Dundas, Ontario
Family Members
  • Wife: Sadie
Other Interests
Owned hobby farm near Lynden, Ontario, where he raised Hereford cattle.
President Emeritus
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario
  • BSc, U of Saskatchewan, 1930
  • MSc, U of Saskatchewan, 1932
  • PhD, U of Chicago, 1934
  • Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), 1946
  • Fellow of the Royal Society, London, 1954
  • Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
  • Companion, Order of Canada, 1967
  • Order of Ontario, 1989
Harold Urey (winner, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1934) Walter Murray (founding president, U of Sask) CJ MacKenzie (former Dean of Engineering, U of Sask and President of NRC, 1939)
Last Updated
October 13, 2011

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