The “unreasonable” Frenchman in Canada

Anyone disputing the role of individuals in history needs to take a look at Canada’s early reactor history. I won’t go into the details here (of course I tackle it in the book) but let me quote some recollections of George Laurence, the most senior Canadian physicist at the time. The context for his remarks is in itself remarkable. Frenchmen who had fled Hitler were bankrolled by Britain, permitted by USA, and hosted by Canada, to build an unusual type of reactor on Canadian soil. In 1943 Hans von Halban, Jr. was put in charge of a polyglot crew of scientists that included Laurence. Surely, I hear you say, given how important this venture was to four countries, Halban was chosen for his managerial skills? Not so. Listen to Laurence nearly four decades later:

The choice of Halban as Director of the Laboratory had seemed logical, but turned out to be unfortunate. He was involved in the unhappy circumstances that brought bitterness and distrust into the relations regarding nuclear energy between France and the United States. . . . An ill-timed visit by Halban to Joliot in France to discuss the patents aggravated American worries about security because Joliot was a member of the French Communist Party. His associations with the NRCC also did not always run smoothly. He was impetuous and vacillating in decisions and unreasonable in his demands of the administrative staff in Ottawa and unfair in criticising them. He failed to inform Dr. Mackenzie or any other Canadian about important decisions regarding the research program of the laboratory. Eventually, E.W.R. Steacie, then the Director of the Chemistry division of the NRCC laboratories, acted as a part-time Assistant Director under him, but Dr. Steacie’s influence came too late and was too remote from the administrative problems in Montreal.


Laurence, George C. 1980. Early Years of Nuclear Energy Research in Canada. AECL, Montreal, Canada. (accessed Mar. 14, 2010).