Those readers who know me from around the Museum may wonder why a review on a topic like this has taken so long to appear. For those who do not know me thus, my interest in this subject stems from my own forty-year involvement in Canadian defence research and development beginning in the mid-1960s. This book chronicles the origins of the Canadian defence research organization during the years before, during, and immediately after the Second World War, and thus serves as prologue for the period during which I served.
This book makes clear very quickly that the success of Canada's wartime defence research effort depended very much on four individuals. First, General Andrew McNaughton, of First World War fame and president of Canada's National Research Council in the late 1930s, foresaw the vital importance of science and technology in the upcoming conflict with Nazi Germany, and then helped orient NRC toward military research. He then, before moving on to his wartime post in London, England, oversaw the installation of C.J. Mackenzie, ex Dean of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, as his successor, overseeing Canada's entire defence research effort throughout the war years. The third individual was Frederick Banting, famous as the discoverer of insulin, who led work on biological warfare before being killed in an plane crash in 1941; and Otto Maass, a chemist at McGill University, who spearheaded Canadian research on chemical warfare and explosives production.
These four individuals were, of course, aided and abetted by many other internationally respected scientists from universities across Canada. Canada's stature was also enhanced by its ability and willingness to provide some unique research facilities, notably the Suffield Experimental Station in southeastern Alberta, the biological warfare research facility on Grosse Isle, downstream from Quebec City, and the Anglo-Canadian Montreal Laboratory, the forerunner of the current Chalk River facility and a contributor to the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.
Because Canada did not have an independent defence research posture during the Second World War, this book really cannot help but be a digest of "Who did what to/for who when", because nearly all allied defence research in this period was a cooperative venture among the United Kingdom, United States and Canada, with Canada working hard (successfully for the most part) to maintain a place at the table between the posturing of British scientists and the immense resources that were mobilized by the United States.
Full disclosure: this book may not be for everyone. It reads like a doctoral thesis; indeed, some one-third of the volume is footnotes, references, bibliography and index. But it must also be noted that this book reflects original research; it is not a digest or commentary on research carried out by others. It also helps if the reader has some acquaintance with the major thrusts of allied military R&D during the Second World War, including nuclear weapons, chemical warfare, biological warfare, radar, the proximity fuse, and explosives production, particularly of RDX.
Nevertheless, "the past is prologue"; this is where Canada's current defence research posture came from, and scientific endeavour continues to be vitally important for the well-being of Canada's military capability. A very interesting book, even if it does not qualify as a relaxing “good read”.
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|Last updated: 23 July 2017|