Physics in Exile: Nazism, Anti-Semitism, and the 1933 Scientific Exodus

By Dimitry Zakharov

In September, 1935, physicists Gerhard and Luise Herzberg arrived in Saskatoon, Canada. This move was a leap of faith, as they had only learned of the small prairie city’s existence shortly before their journey, and secured a university position due to a chance friendship with the University of Saskatchewan chemistry professor John Spinks, and a generous grant from the Carnegie Foundation which aimed at helping German scholars. While Saskatchewan was not previously known to the Herzbergs, available faculty positions in universities outside of Germany were already scarce. Many postings in England and North America were already filled by academics and scientists who left as soon as the Nazi party passed a law forbidding Jews and other non-Aryans from working in public sector jobs like universities.

Several months prior to his arrival, Herzberg had received news from the Carnegie Foundation that he qualified for funding of a two-year tenure appointment in a British Dominion or Commonwealth university. His first choice in Canada was the University of Toronto, which already had a spectroscopy laboratory led by British/ Canadian physicist Sir John Cunningham McLennan. However, the University of Toronto already made an offer for its available faculty position to a German mathematician, Bernard Haurwitz from Leipzig. After more communication with chemist John Spinks and University of Saskatchewan President Walter Murray, Herzberg accepted their offer on April 2nd, 1935. On September 1st, the Herzbergs arrived by ship in New York, and left by train for their new home, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

An NSDAP poster dated February 27, 1925 advertising a meeting in Munich where Adolf Hitler will address the party. The poster reads “Germany’s future and our movement” and announces the re-establishment of the party. Image courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

What caused the exodus of German scholars, the Herzbergs among them? What made staying in Germany too dangerous for Luise and Gerhard and for a number of other notable scientists, doctors, and others? Continue reading

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg and The Prize

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By Denisa Popa

In Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science, Boris Stoicheff recalls the amusing way in which Herzberg found out he had received the Nobel Prize. On November 2nd, 1971, as Herzberg was seated on a train waiting to leave Leningrad station, the Secretary of the Soviet Academy of Science ran up to his cabin and informed him he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics.[1] This was well before smartphones, of course, so Herzberg, stuck in this train, had no way to contact his colleagues and family back in Canada. He spent the next six hours by himself on the train wondering why he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics and not Chemistry.[2]

“Gerhard Herzberg, Nobel Award Certificate, Dec. 1971” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.

The confusion was cleared up once he arrived and learned that the award was, indeed, for chemistry. Herzberg’s memorable experience was not the last time a Nobel laureate found out they’d won the prize while stuck in transit. In 1991, Richard Ernst found out he won, for chemistry, while on an airplane traveling from Moscow to New York.[3] As he recalls in this video, the captain came to his seat mid-flight to personally inform him of the news. Ernst recounts going to the plane’s cockpit to call his family.[4]

Herzberg’s Nobel journey began in 1958, Continue reading

Scientific Freedom and “the Golden Years”: Gerhard Herzberg and the National Research Council of Canada

Denisa Popa

From 1948 until his retirement in 1994, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg conducted ground-breaking research at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). As his close friend and biographer Boris Stoicheff has noted, Herzberg’s early period at the NRC– culminating in his Nobel win in 1971 — were truly “the golden years” of his career.[1] Recognizing the essential nature of his work, the NRC offered him the time, resources and freedom to pursue any research of his choosing. (The NRC’s intellectual environment was challenged during Herzberg’s later years.) This latitude contrasted the constraints he’d faced previously at the Yerkes Observatory in Chicago from 1945 to 1948. Indeed, this episode further highlights the vital role that Canadian institutions played in Herzberg’s scientific work.[2]

“Gerhard Herzberg in lab coat at blackboard” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.

Yerkes Observatory: University of Chicago

When Herzberg first arrived in Canada, he spent 10 productive and enjoyable years as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. But in 1945, Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago offered him a job. At first, this opportunity seemed like “the ideal situation” for Herzberg as he would join a larger institution connected closely to U.S. universities.[3] As Stoicheff notes, it would enable him “to become an astronomer, a career he had dreamt of long ago.”[4] Yet even while he was negotiating the job offer, difficulties began to crop up. The university could only hire him as an associate professor, a step down from his position in Saskatchewan. Nevertheless, Herzberg accepted the position, and set out for Williams Bay with his family.

The intellectual focus of the Yerkes Observatory differed greatly from Saskatchewan. Continue reading

9th Annual(?) Year in Review (100 Years Later)

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By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our 2 cents on the events of 1921, but let us know what you think of the biggest events of the year.

It’s that time of year again where we get together and use the incredible power of hindsight to look back on the events of 100 years ago. In the past we have used this space to note the struggles of the current year and hope for better in the new year, but the past couple of years have demonstrated that, all we can really do, is live in the moment and appreciate each day as much as possible. And if looking back at 1921 has taught us anything, it’s that positive, life-changing developments can come seemingly out of nowhere. For as bad as things may appear, there are people out there fighting the good fight and working round the clock to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. This is true in 2021, but also comes through very clearly when looking back at 1921.

For anyone new to the Year in Review (100 Years Later) series, we find that typical year in review articles lack context. We need time to truly assess what was important in a given year. That was the motivation behind the first edition of this series (you can find links to all editions at the end of the post) and continues to motivate us as we venture deeper into the 20th century.

As always, we have divided the events into four brackets. This year they are the International Bracket, the Progress Bracket, the Doctors Bracket, and, as always, the Potpourri Bracket. The no repeat winner rule is also in effect, so if you think we’ve missed something, it may fall into that category, but do let us know your thoughts – good or bad.

International Bracket

(1) Cairo Conference


(4) China Communist Party Established

Sean: In the summer of 1921, a group of revolutionaries in China came together to form the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A lot of them had come out of the May Fourth Movement and had been inspired by the Russian Revolution. In the early days of the party, leaders, including Mao Zadong, began organizing labour unions across China. The CCP joined with the Nationalist Party in 1924, but its early growth was short-lived as the group was driven underground in 1927 when the Nationalists violently pushed them out of Shanghai. Support for the CCP grew across the countryside, to the point where after the Second World War the party controlled areas with a combined population over 100 million. A civil war erupted in 1946 and 3 years later, with the Nationalists having retreated to Taiwan, the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China. In the years since, the CCP has seen many changes – most notably through the Cultural Revolution – but it remains the sole political party in the country.

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History Slam 197: History Podcaster Roundtable

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By Sean Graham

When we started the History Slam back in 2012, podcasting was still pretty new. The major platforms were hosting shows, but the analytics weren’t very good, many people had difficulty accessing episodes, and a lot of academics – including every faculty member I talked to before starting the show – didn’t take them seriously, with one even telling me it was a big waste of time. Fast-forward nine-and-a-half years and 197 episodes later and the landscape is completely different. Not only are there now millions of podcasts, but the widespread adoption of smartphones, viral hits like Serial, and improved tools for measuring audience size have all helped podcasting change from a relative niche medium to a significant cultural industry.

History podcasts have been part of that growth as back when we started, the options in Canada were relatively limited. That is not the case today as there are many outstanding history podcasts produced by Canadians. From interviews to audio documentaries to narrative structures, there is such a greater diversity of topics and voices in the history podcasting space than a decade ago. And while it’s been fun to experience that ever evolving landscape as someone who creates podcasts, it has also created new challenges as the show itself has changed to (hopefully) stay relevant within the field. Whether I’ve been successful or not is for others to decide, but every time I have the opportunity to speak to another podcaster, I always learn something based on their approach to the medium and how they view the history podcasting space.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with three outstanding podcasters as we explore the past, present, and future of history podcasting. David Borys of Cool Canadian History, Kathy Kenzora of History of the 90s, and Craig Baird of Canadian History Ehx discuss the origins of their shows, telling historical stories in an audio format, and how they build relationships with their audiences. We also chat about how of us pick topics, the use of analytics, and what advice we might give any aspiring history podcasters.

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How to Celebrate New Year’s Day Like a Fur Trader

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Drawing of Métis jigging at a party near the Pembina Hudson’s Bay Company Post, now part of North Dakota, ca. 1860. Harper’s, vol. 21 (June-Nov 1860), 585.

Jessica Di Laurenzio

It is impossible to study early Canadian history without understanding the fur trade, and impossible to study the fur trade without coming across the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Some of the most useful and interesting records are the journals that kept daily accounts of post activities. Among the entries that jotted down the weather, visitors to the post, activities of the employees, and their general struggle for survival, one day of the year consistently stands out: New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Day was the most festive day of a trading year. It brought together post employees and their families, management, First Nations, retired traders, and sometimes even people from rival trading posts. The day was celebrated across the fur trade network at posts from James Bay to Vancouver Island. Like they did at Christmas, post employees had the day off from their usual duties. But the Christmas festivities usually paled in comparison to the raucous traditions of the first day of the New Year. Continue reading

Historia Nostra & Off-Campus History visit the Diefenbunker

By Louis Reed-Wood and Erin Isaac

In October 2021, three former University of Saskatchewan history nerds met up in Ottawa, Ontario to answer the call of destiny (or something like it…). We’d come to the outskirts of Ottawa to sleuth around the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum — a museum we three (Hannah Cooley, Louis Reed-Wood, and Erin Isaac, now all PhD students based in Ontario) had heard a lot about while working at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre (DCC), Canada’s only Prime Ministerial Library. The DCC, during our stint there, was oft confused with the Diefenbunker on tourism sites where contented visitors sometimes left glowing reviews for the Cold War museum on our own museum’s pages. Naturally, having heard so much about the Diefenbunker, we were eager to see what this museum has to offer. We were not disappointed.

Erin and Louis hard at work!

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History Slam 196: Becoming Vancouver

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By Sean Graham

The first time I was fortunate enough to visit Vancouver, it was October and the weather was unseasonably cold. It was a damp cold – the type that feels like it sticks to you – so I spent 4 days struggling to get warm. Having lived in Regina since that initial visit to the west coast, I now tell people with great confidence that -40 on the Prairies is a walk in the park compared to 0 in Vancouver.

That seeming contradiction, of a temperate place whose location makes cold temperatures feel much worse, is but one source of tension that exists in Vancouver. The city boasts the highest housing prices in Canada but is also home to what has been called the lowest income postal code in the country. It features a diverse local population, but has a long history of racial strife. Its economic growth is tightly connected to resource extraction, but the environmental movement is closely associated with the region.

These, and many other, sources of tension in Vancouver are central in Daniel Francis‘ new book Becoming Vancouver: A History. While taking a chronological approach to the city’s past, Francis focuses on the points of tension that have come to shape the local culture, politics, and economics. Motivated by a desire to highlight the city’s past in an cultural environment where its history is not always front of mind, he manages to craft a local history that highlights key themes that influence civic life in communities across the country. From housing prices to opioids to discriminatory policies, Becoming Vancouver delves into national issues within a well-written local history.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Daniel Francis about the book. We discuss civic history, Indigenous communities in what is now Vancouver, and the city’s early development through natural resources. We also chat about housing prices, inequality, racism, 1960s protests, and the city’s cultural growth. Continue reading

History Slam 195: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People & How to Fix It

By Sean Graham

During the election campaign this fall, the major political parties all included Reconciliation in their platforms. Yet in the past couple of weeks, the protests around the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have served as another example of how far there is to go towards meaningful Reconciliation. As Bruce McIvor notes, this will be a multi-generational project that will take a genuine commitment to engage.

McIvor explores the failures of Reconciliation and how to resolve these issues in his new book Standoff: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People and How to Fix It. The book features a series of short essays he has written throughout his career as a lawyer fighting for Indigenous rights. With a wide range of topics presented in a short, easily-readable format, Standoff is a deeply engaging book that challenges its readers to go beyond established narratives surrounding Reconciliation and consider what a meaningful Reconciliation process could look like.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Bruce McIvor about Reconciliation and the book. We chat about his background as a lawyer challenging colonial laws, the pervasiveness of colonialism, and treaty obligations. We also discuss the the current protests, what meaningful actions non-Indigenous Canadians can take, and the impact of colonialism on Indigenous youth across Canada. If you are interested in purchasing the book, head to Bruce’s website where you can find a list of independent, Indigenous-owned bookstores around the country.

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Visiting and Recognizing the Past: Toronto’s 1919-1920 Smallpox Outbreak

Sara Wilmshurst

A few years ago, on this very site, I published an article about combatting vaccine resistance with historical education. Surely, I thought, if people understood how devastating preventable diseases could be, everyone would be eager to roll up a sleeve and be jabbed.

Such is the pain of living through historic times. At least I learned something.

Like many of the historians who contributed to the recent series, cycling has been an outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic and a way to visit various pockets of my adopted city, Toronto, even as the weather cools and low points in the path become puddles.

When riding up the Don River trail, I always think about a place that no longer exists: the Swiss Cottage Hospital. The twenty-five-bed institution was part of the Riverdale Isolation Hospital complex; it specifically served patients with smallpox. The building was disused for several years when it burned in 1930. The nearby Riverdale Hospital (now Hennick Bridgepoint Health) has a Heritage Toronto plaque but the humbler smallpox hospital has no such marker.

Alt text: A black-and-white photograph of a brick building with two full storeys and a gable roof. There is a grassy lawn in front of the building and a stand of evergreen trees behind it.

“Smallpox Isolation Hospital,” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 331. Public domain.

In the second winter of the COVID-19 pandemic I cannot help but think of Toronto’s 1919-1920 smallpox outbreak. It began in November 1919, when public health officials confirmed the outbreak of chickenpox in the city was, in fact, smallpox. Continue reading