History of the Department


The Legislature of Nova Scotia established Dalhousie University in 1818, but it was not until 1838 that the functions of the college commenced. President Thomas McCulloch strongly supported the claims of mathematics and natural philosophy (as physics was then known) as “subjects best fitted for the understanding of nature and society.”

The college did not have a library and scientific equipment had to be borrowed from the Mechanics Institute. Following a decline in the 1840s, the college reopened in 1863 as a university with six staff. Honours courses were offered and five degrees awarded, including two in mathematics and physics. In 1876, J. Gordon MacGregor was appointed Lecturer in Natural Philosophy, giving classes in experimental physics and mathematical physics, while C. MacDonald taught hydrostatics, optics and astronomy. In 1878, the first Canadian Chair in Physics was established and held by Dr. J.J. MacKenzie, who sadly died a year later “as a result of inhaling fumes from wet electric batteries.”

In 1879, George Munro, a wealthy Nova Scotian, began his Dalhousie benefactions by endowing the George Munro Chair of Physics. J.G. MacGregor, D.Sc., was the first incumbent and during his 23 years at Dalhousie, he took an active part in its administration, and was recognized as an inspiring teacher and leading exponent of the merits of science. 

J.G. MacGregor's research interests were wide but mainly concerned with electrical conductivity of liquids, absorption of radiant heat by gases, thermo-electricity, temperature variance of electrical resistance of alloys, and viscosity. His book, Kinematics and Dynamics, included his own studies on the foundations of dynamics. He was the first Canadian elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and was instrumental in the establishment of both the Nova Scotia Technical College and the Royal Society of Canada.

In 1901, the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science was established. Stephen Dixon (MA, Dublin) became Head and Munro Professor of Physics but later resigned to teach engineering. T.C. Hebb taught the seven classes in physics until 1905, when Dr. A. Stanley MacKenzie (PhD, Johns Hopkins), a former Dalhousie student, became head and George Munro Professor of Physics.  He built and equipped a laboratory and researched measurements of the velocity of alpha particles under conditions that would intimidate physicists today. Mackenzie became president of Dalhousie in 1912 while continuing to lecture in physics.  

Howard L. Bronson (PhD, Yale) became Head and George Munro Professor in 1911 and remained in that position until his retirement in 1945. Until 1920, he taught seven classes in physics, including 19 hours of laboratory, with the help of one demonstrator. He also supervised a graduate student, J.H.L. Johnstone, the first to graduate, in 1914, with an MSc in Physics. From 1912-1915, Bronson took part in planning the physics part of the new Science and Engineering building that was later damaged by the Halifax Explosion in 1917. Dr. J.H.L. Johnstone (PhD, Yale) joined the department in 1920, and Dr. G.H. Henderson (Ph.D., Cambridge) in 1924. Research was conducted in the areas of specific heats of metals, pleochroic haloes, and dielectric constants of crystals.  

During the war years, Henderson and Johnstone were drawn into Naval research; by 1942, they were devoting all their time to it and were placed in joint charge of naval research in Halifax. The Naval Research Establishment, now known as D.R.E.A., came into being and the two physicists were recruited to install ship degaussing systems that were previously invented by Sir Charles Goodeve in the UK.  When fitted to ships, these systems would protect against mines.  In particular, Johnstone adapted the rotating coil magnetometer for underwater application and organized and spearheaded the installation and staffing of five degaussing stations across Canada.  Henderson's contribution was the development of an empirical deperming current control scheme that was a great improvement over the Goodeve specified procedure.  They also developed methods of acoustic mine sweeping and decoy of acoustic torpedoes.  Johnstone had seen service in both world wars and was awarded the M.B.E. (Milit. div.) for services in WWI.  In 1943 he became Director of Operational Research in Ottawa.  Both Johnstone and Henderson were awarded the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) for their WWII Work.  Dr. William J. Archibald was released by the National Research Council to assist Bronson with the teaching load in physics at Dalhousie.

Before his death in 1949, G.H. Henderson achieved international renown for his work on pleochroic haloes.  He was the first Canadian to determine rock age, and this research resulted in his election to the Royal Society of London in 1942.  J.H.L. Johnstone became Head and George Munro Professor in 1945.  His research was in the area of radioactivity.  On his retirement as Head in 1957, Johnstone headed the team responsible for the design and construction of the new Sir James Dunn Science Building. During his time, Drs. E.W. Guptill, C.K. Hoyt, L.G. Stephens-Newsham, A.D. MacDonald, J.E. Blanchard, and A.T. Stewart all joined the faculty of the department. Dr. A.C. Fales, an opthalmologist, became a great friend of the department during this time, and on his death in 1954 endowed a Chair in Theoretical Physics and a Fales Visiting Professsorship. Dr. Archibald was the first holder of the Fales Chair.

Dr. Guptill, who, with Prof. W.H. Watson, invented the slotted array antenna during the war, researched sound waves of very high frequency, particularly in liquids; as well, he set up a lab for work in low temperature physics. Dr. MacDonald was concerned with electrical conduction in gases at high frequencies, and the voltage required for breakdown. Dr. Blanchard measured the carbon-14 content of various materials for age determination. Dr. Stewart's experiments concerned neutron scattering and positron annihilation. Dr. Archibald carried on studies in theoretical physics, particularly in quantum mechanics and the nature of the meson. His paper, “A Demonstration of Some New Methods of Determining Molecular Weights from the Data of the Ultracentrifuge” (J. Phys. & Celloid Chem. 51, 1947), has been cited more than 650 times and is still very much in use. Dr. Archibald, Head of Physics from 1957-58, was a much-admired teacher; he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science from 1955-60 and Dean of Freshmen from 1973 until his retirement in 1978.  

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Authors and bibliography

This short history of the Department was written by:

B.E. Trim, R.A. Dunlap, and R.H. March (2000)

Updated by G. Stroink (July 2004)

We wish to thank present and former members of the Department for their assistance in putting together this abbreviated history - in particular, J.E. Blanchard, D. Kiang, M.H. Jericho and B. Loncarevic.


Johnstone, J.H.L. A Short History of the Physics Department, Dalhousie University, 1838-1956. Department of Physics, Dalhousie University, 1971.

Heighton, E. Dr. Howard L. Bronson, Physicist, 1878-1968. Private printing, 1990.

Waite, P.B. The Lives of Dalhousie University, Vols. 1 and 2. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994 and 1998.