History of the Department 1853-1999 | Department of Physics

History of the Department 1853-1999

In the new millenium the Department underwent some major changes. In 2005 we moved from the old Science building to the brand new Physical Science Complex. Because of retirement and the tragic loss of some faculty members almost all faculty in the Department have been replaced, which probably makes us one of the youngest Departments in Canada.

In 1999 Michael Steinitz had published an article about the Department in Physics in Canada. This article, which is reprinted below, nicely describes the leading role that Father Clarke and Father Nicholson played in the early days of the Department. Two anecdotes about them fuerther illustrate the spirit in the early Physics Department.
History of Physics at St.F.X. 


 In 1950 the St. Francis Xavier University physics department was a tiny department, staffed by priests, at a university dedicated to social change and the preparation of students for seminaries.  But the president of St. Francis Xavier University had been a physicist (Fr. Pat Nicholson, PhD from John's Hopkins) and change was coming.  By the 1970s, under the leadership of Fr. Ernest Clarke, the department had reached its present complement of six (Clarke was the last cleric) and held a record unequaled by most physics departments in Canada: 100% of its members held grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

With the exception of one year, this enviable level of participation in NSERC grants has been maintained to this day, in a department that has a remarkable diversity at a small, rural Nova Scotian university with a strong Roman Catholic history and tradition.  It numbers in its ranks a protestant, a Hindu, a Moslem and a Jew, with origins including India, Canada, Trinidad, St. Lucia, England and the U.S.

These six teachers and researchers work in diverse fields of basic physics, including atomic spectroscopy, electron spectroscopy, statistical mechanics, theoretical biophysics and experimental magnetism.

A steady stream of visitors from all over the world passes through the department doing collaborative research.  Members of the department have held important positions on national and provincial bodies and boards.


StFX was founded in 1853 by Bishop Colin MacKinnon in Arichat, Nova Scotia.  The university moved to Antigonish in 1855 and received full university powers by act of the Nova Scotia Legislature in 1866.  Although the first Bachelor of Science degrees were awarded in 1904, Father Patrick (Doc Pat) Nicholson must be acknowledged as the founder of the science enterprise at StFX, and he deserves special attention.  Although there were some significant efforts as early as the beginning of this century, the organized drive to establish a coherent, reputable program dates from 1916, the year Dr. Nicholson joined the faculty.  He had taken his undergraduate degree at St. F.X. and then went on to undertake theological studies and to obtain a doctorate in physics under Pfund at Johns Hopkins University. His research concerned the photoelectric effect, "Some Experiments on the Physical Properties of Selenium with a Theoretical Discussion Based on the Electron Theory".

The president of the time, Fr. H.P. MacPherson, welcomed him with the expressed hope that he would establish a solid program in physics. When Dr. Nicholson stated that a good laboratory would be an essential and substantial part of any such venture, he was told that the laboratory was ready and waiting for him.

 Yes, "it" was indeed ready: one fairly large, but totally empty room in MacNeil Hall.  Never the man to quail before a challenge, the physicist-theologian rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to fabricate lab equipment.  As he told it, his father before him was a skilled tradesman, and the son counted on his genes to come to the rescue.

A man of brilliant intelligence, a real capacity for work, and unequaled dedication, he soon had in place a fairly respectable program in physics.  It was some years before he could afford additional staff and until then, he had to rely on volunteer student assistants.

It was only in the early 30s that Fathers Tobin and Clarke entered the scene.  Both were outstanding teachers.  While chemistry, biology and geology must be allowed their own pages in the history of science at StFX, the pace and standard which the trio established in physics greatly influenced other departments.  Dr. Nicholson, of course, played the prominent role in upgrading staff, not only in the science faculty, but in every area of the arts faculty as well.  He will undoubtedly eventually be acknowledged as the principal builder of the academic enterprise at StFX.   To this must be added his tremendous influence on the development of the diocese of Antigonish, from which StFX sprang in the first place, and from which it drew the human resources that saw it through its first century of development, in the age before government came to the aid of universities generally.

The church has not been allowed to forget its mishandling of Galileo, but Dr. Nicholson, priest and physicist, had no hesitation about "looking through the telescope."

AND '50s

The physics teaching staff at StFX in the early 1940s consisted of Dr. Patrick Nicholson, Father Cyril Tobin, Father Ernest Clarke and several part-time laboratory assistants.  They taught all of the physics courses required for the Bachelor's pass degrees and for the engineering certificate.  There was no graduate program and no research.

Dr. Patrick Nicholson was Dean of Studies at the time and was also very active in organizing choral activities.  A quotation in the local paper, The Casket, from Aug.22, 1951 has him saying "The way to turn people away from poor music is to give them good music", a saying that resonates particularly with the author of this history.  He taught the course in electricity and magnetism, which had the reputation of making or breaking students, and also supervised most of the laboratory courses. His responsibilities as surrogate parent were taken very seriously and he was very helpful to individual students.

Father Cyril Tobin was reputedly the best teacher of the group.  His advanced mechanics courses were said to be models of clarity, as were his courses in religion (particularly bible studies) and his sermons.  He also participated (with less flair, it is said) in the laboratory program.

Father Ernest Clarke was recognized as the 'brain' of the team and taught the advanced courses - in electronics, radio and modern physics.  He could make anything work and designed and supervised the assembly of the local CJFX radio station.  Once a year, he would bring out the Department's gem: the last authentic Edison carbon-filament light bulb, which - protected by a series resistor - would glow feebly.  It is now on display in a case in the lobby of the Science Hall.  Later he took a doctorate in atomic physics at Laval University where he achieved international repute for his electron selector, with which he made many studies of atmospheric gases.  He then initiated the physics research program at StFX and was soon joined in it by a colleague from Laval - Dr. Antonio Olmos Weingartshofer.  Dr. Clarke brought modern physics to Antigonish.  An echo of his influence was heard when the Canadian Association of Physicists named its Surface-Science Prize after Dr. Jean-Denis Carette of Laval, who did almost all his work with Dr. Clarke's selector.

Physics laboratory instructors during this period included Gerald Breau, Francis Ginivan, Ralph Giroux, William Landry, Larkin Kerwin, O'Connor Murray, Jack Penny, William Shaw and Charles Wadden.


 The StFX physics department today consists of six faculty members, teaching and doing research in a number of fields.  It is a matter of pride that many students have gone on to stellar careers in physics and other fields. Present members, with their research interests are: Doug Hunter (statistical physics computation), Naeem Jan (statistical physics computation), Yogi Joshi (atomic spectroscopy experiment), David Pink (theoretical biophysics/ statistical physics computation, Michael Steinitz (condensed matter experiment), Barry Wallbank (electron/laser spectroscopy experiment), Antonio Weingartshofer (emeritus - electron spectroscopy experiment).

The development of the research-intensive atmosphere in the physics department began in the 1950s, when the Rev. E. M. Clarke established a research program in atomic physics in collaboration with Laval University and Larkin Kerwin in particular, a former student of Clarke's who was later his mentor in graduate school.  In the 1970s emphasis was placed on consolidating strengths in two areas, atomic and molecular physics, and condensed matter physics.  A strong biophysics program grew out of the condensed matter group.  Support under the NRC/NSERC Regional Development program in the 1970s and 80s helped the department to become a successful, stable and competitive research unit that can hold its head high among the best departments in Canada in spite of small size and geographical isolation.

In the past ten years the department has received over two million dollars in NSERC grants, including operating grants totalling about $170K per year, nine equipment grants and one three-year collaborative project.  From 1988-97 over 220 papers were published from the department.  Ongoing collaborations exist with researchers in eight Canadian universities and twenty groups in eleven other countries.

The department has not encouraged students to enter its own MSc program, and has rather encouraged undergraduate participation in research.  Consequently, students receive excellent preparation for careers in research that would be difficult to get at other institutions.  Ten to fifteen students are employed each summer as research assistants, and nearly all go on to graduate study.  Two-thirds enter Masters or Doctoral programs in physics or engineering, while one-third proceed to professional programs in medicine, dentistry, law and education.  Eighteen graduates now play a significant role as high school teachers of physics.  Two-thirds of those proceeding to graduate school have received NSERC scholarships and six were awarded NSERC 1967 scholarships.  One of these, Alan Hugh MacDonald, went on to receive the Herzberg medal in physics from the Canadian Association of Physicists.

In the past ten years, 38 of the papers published in the department have included 44 student authors.  Three papers were published by undergraduates alone, in top journals.

Ten StFX physics graduates now hold university appointments, thirty are in industry, seven are in technical support positions at universities, seven are in medical physics, twelve are in medicine, eighteen are high school teachers, and eighteen are still in graduate school.

Members of the department have served on the NSERC council, the board of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), on the executive of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, and as president of the CAP.  Another is a fellow of the Optical Society of America.

The department has a strong research program in the spectroscopy of highly ionized ions in the vacuum ultraviolet region.  The laboratory is linked with others around the world (NIST, Zeeman, Russian Academy of Spectroscopy). By sharing facilities and fostering exchange visits, the group has become one of the most productive in its field.

The electron scattering laboratory, after some groundbreaking measurements of free-free electron transitions in the presence of intense laser fields, is now studying laser-assisted electron-atom collision processes.  Recent collaboration with JILA, using the Oak Ridge ion source, has led to the measurement of cross-sections for electron impact excitations of multicharged ions that are of interest in plasma physics.

The experimental condensed matter program is concentrated on dilatometric and neutron scattering studies of magnetic phase transitions in solids. Special interest is in incommensurate structures and anisotropy in magnetic elements.  There are ongoing collaborations with David Tindall at Dalhousie University (who spent three years at StFX), Jan Genossar at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and with members of the Neutron Program for Materials Research at Chalk River.

 The program in biophysics has done seminal work in developing models of biological membranes.  By performing computer simulations of these model systems and interacting with experimental groups here and abroad, much has been learned about biomembranes.  This research is aided by the computer programming of Bonnie Quinn with NSERC support.  Ms. Quinn is now a resource person used by researchers in many other departments.  This program has spun off a food science laboratory in association with another department and an industrial partner.  Recently it has modelled animal foraging strategies in association with the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

The statistical physics group has done theoretical and computational studies of the critical properties of ferromagnets, polymers, spin glasses, and high-Tc  superconductors.  It has used these same techniques to study other fields, such as evolution, aging, and population stability.

The building, which now houses the physics department, as well as chemistry and engineering, has an interesting history.  The first wing to be built was erected in 1910 and named after Mr. Neil MacNeil, an alumnus who was also the donor of Fr. Clarke's famed Edison light bulb. The remainder of the Science Hall dates from 1956 and was designed by Father Clarke in collaboration with Dr. William Foley, chair of chemistry at the time.  These buildings have served well, but are now in desperate need of replacement.  Teaching and research laboratories are crowded and very short of storage space.  There is a severe shortage of space for the numerous visiting scientists and post-doctoral fellows who often come for periods from one month to two years.  Thus a new Science Hall is high on the list of priorities in a capital campaign about to be launched by StFX.

A major effort of the physics department has been the holding of workshops with Nova Scotian High School physics teachers and members of the department.
 These generally occur twice a year and allow the discussion of innovative teaching techniques, problems and ideas.

The department offers prizes to top students in each year of study, one of them being named after the late Mangal Gautam, who was a member of the department until his tragic accidental death in 1973.

StFX has established the James Chair of Science to honour a distinguished alumnus and to bring eminent scholars to the university for periods of up to one year.  The physics department has been fortunate to welcome as holders of this chair Hennig Stieve, Erich Sackmann, Dick Van Kleef, Peter Klinkenberg, Alexander Ryabtsev, Jean François Wyart, Jorgen Hansen, Massimo Mazzoni, Ton Raassen, Sergei Churilov, Bill McGowan, Jan Genossar, Rod Biltonen, Dietrich Stauffer, Antonio Coniglio and Hans van Leeuwen.  The university also supports research through limited funding from its University Council for Research, an innovation introduced by Dr. J.J. MacDonald, when he was Dean of Science.

A large part of the success of the research programs of the experimentalists in the department is due to intense and fruitful collaboration with our machinist and designer, Werner Schnepf. The electronics technician for the university is Craig Seaboyer.

The teaching in the department is supported by laboratory instructor Jamie Powell and laboratory supervisor Jim Holmes.

Other physicists who have had teaching appointments in the department include John Hubisz, Patrick Whelan, Alan Marble, Al Maroun, Duncan Keenan, Jim Kazman, Phil English, Luc Levesque, Mojtaba Kahrizi, Larkin Kerwin, Mangal Gautam, Ernst Grundke, Bill McGowan, Art Kelly, Tony Roy, Gordon Penny, Bill Reid and Gerry Hebert.

  by M.O. Steinitz†


† This article was written with contributions from D.L. Hunter, Y. Joshi, A. Weingartshofer, Fr. Malcolm MacDonnell, Dr. Larkin Kerwin, Dr. W. Foley, Dr. Leo P. Chiasson, and Mr. Bernard Buckley.  These are gratefully acknowledged.
PHYSICS IN CANADA March/April 1999