A Brief History of Queen's University and the Physics Department

By: Prof. Malcolm Stott

This sketch of the history of physics at Queen's developed out of a conference talk commemorating the 175th birthday of the University. Physics and astronomy have been taught here since the early days; an independent department was formed over a century ago; engineering physics was started about that time and research became a feature of the Department.

A brief chronology traces the development of the University from its small beginnings and gives the main steps that led to the university we have today and its physics department. Enormous changes took place over this period in what we have learned of the physical world, and we see this in the curriculum and what was taught as physics, or natural philosophy as it was more broadly termed. Three individuals who were pivotal in the development of physics at Queen's are featured and three memorable characters who were known to present members of the Department bring us up to date.   

Those who are interested in delving further into the history of the University or the Physics Department might wish to consult the online "Queen's Encyclopedia". Especially valuable resources are the calendars for the various faculties. Digitized copies of these going back to the first, 1845/6 calendar of Queen's College are available online. These calendars list entrance requirements and procedures, fees, prizes, general regulations, and faculty members. Lists of courses and their content give insights into what was taught and chronicle the state of knowledge in the various subjects at the time. Also drawn on are documents from the Department's Collection & Artifacts.

The University
The Department
What was taught as physics
Three Characters

The University

  • October 1841— Queen's College founded by Royal Charter of Queen Victoria. It was the first degree-granting institution between Fredericton and the Pacific. The University of Toronto did not open until 1843, and although McGill was established much earlier, medicine was its only functioning faculty until 1843 when its Faculty of Arts was opened.
  • Queen's was a creature of the Presbyterian Church born through rivalry between the Scottish Presbyterians and the English Anglicans. The Scottish stance was that King's College, Toronto, established in 1837, had been hijacked with its resources by the Anglicans. In response the Presbyterian Synod voted to establish in Kingston: ''Presbyterian Queen's College offering....literary, and scientific training as well as theological training" for presbyterian ministers in the Colony. The Board of Trustees to  comprise: "15 layman and 12 clergymen all in full communion with the Church of Scotland ".
  • The hope was that Kingston, the new capital of United Canada from 1841, would grow in size and importance. This was scotched by the untimely death of Governor General Lord Sydenham, which led to the move of the capital from Kingston in 1843.

Front page of the 1845-46 calendar of Queen's College, Kingston, Ontario
The front page of the 1845/6 calendar, the first academic calendar of Queen's College
  • March 1842:  "Queen's College is now in operation with 12 students, with 7 training for the ministry".
    There were two faculties: Arts and Theology, and two professors; another—Williamson, was added later that year. Williamson taught Natural Philosophy until 1895 for a total of 53 years, beginning the tradition of long-lived physics professors. Even then professors complained about the preparation of the students:
    ''..... had been so superficially taught, that the professors' teaching is very laborious ''.
  • 1847: the first degrees were conferred.
  • 1858: the Alma Mater Society was formed. The AMS, the oldest student association in Canada, continues to have considerable responsibility for student affairs.
  • 1941: 100 years on: 3,800 students were enrolled and 459 graduated, of these 8% were from Kingston and 22% from outside Ontario.
  • 2017: 175 years on: there were 18,000 undergrads and 3,500 grad students including 8% from outside Canada.

For more information about the history of Queen's University see History of Queen’s: An Overview.

Applied Science

Applied science and the training of engineers played an important role in the development of physics at Queen's but its establishing followed a devious route.

  • Principal Grant (1877-1902) recognized that Canada needed engineers, but no additional funding was forthcoming from the Province to establish a new engineering program at Queen's because it was still a ''Denominational College" tied to the Presbyterian Church.
  • In 1893 Grant finessed this obstacle by forming an independent ''School of Mining and Agriculture" which was funded by the Province and in 1894 forming a skeleton, unfunded  ''Faculty of Applied Science" with Dupuis as Dean.
  • In 1912 Queen's College became Queen's University and formally separated from the Presbyterian Church.
  • Until this time there appeared in the Calendar:
    "Attendance at Church — All students are expected to attend the churches to which they profess to belong and produce certificates of attendance from their clergyman when required".
  • Finally in 1916 the School and the Faculty united to become the Faculty of Applied Science.

The Department


Astronomy has been a feature of the Department since its beginnings.  See V.A. Hughes'  The Early History of Astronomy at Queen's University.

  • 1856: The Kingston Observatory was established for the determination of longitude and time. In 1861, The Observatory was transferred to Queen's College with the condition that 6 public Astronomy Lectures were offered per year. These were given by James Williamson,  Prof. Mathematics & Natural Philosophy 1842-95, brother-in-law to John A. MacDonald.
  • The 1891 Calendar lists: Fortnightly lectures and examinations... given by Williamson. Students reported: he is ''very old, very absent minded but highly revered".
  • From 1899 until 1963 astronomy was under the direction of mathematics and until roughly the 1940's astronomy was mainly a branch of mathematics e.g. spherical geometry.
  • In 1939 Vibert Douglas, a student of Eddington, arrived. She offered a course: Descriptive Astronomy, and pioneered the teaching of astrophysics at Queen's while serving as Dean of Women for 20 years. She was also responsible for the construction of the observatory on top of Ellis Hall.
  • Later there developed radio astronomy, theoretical astrophysics and the use of global facilities.
Prof. Vibert Douglas
Prof. Vibert Douglas
  • Vibert Douglas offered a course: Descriptive Astronomy, and pioneered the teaching of astrophysics at Queen's.
  • She was also responsible for the construction of the observatory on top of Ellis Hall which is the source of many student research projects.
  • Her collection of meteorites is part of the Historical Collection and is displayed near the ballistic pendulum.
  • See A.V. Douglas: Distinguished Queen's Astrophysicist (PDF)


Engineering Physics

Up until 1919 the undergraduate physics courses were under the Faculty of Arts and we can think of this program of study as the forerunner of the present-day Physics Program through the Arts and Science Faculty.

  • In 1919 Course H, as our Engineering Physics was known, was established as a program in the new Applied Science Faculty.
  • The 1919/20 Calendar reads: "This course is designed to fit men for positions as physicists in research laboratories."
  • The course: "...a thorough grounding in fundamental subjects math, physics, chemistry +  classes of the Practical Science Faculty + advanced theoretical classes."
  • The first engineering physics graduate, W. A. Marrison (1920) went on to a distinguished career at Bell Labs.
  • Enrolment in the program has fluctuated. Sputnik caused a boost in 1961 to 25 students and to 27 the following year. A decline to a low point of 8 students in the 1970's led to the major overhaul conducted by Mike Sayer in 1975, since when numbers have steadily increased.
  • The Engineering Physics program through the Applied Science Faculty coexists with the Honours Physics Program through the Arts and Science Faculty.
  • The graduating physics class of 2017 consisted of 65 EngPhys students and 30 Honours Physics students.

Graduate Studies

Graduate study was formally established at Queen's in 1889 including the offering of the PhD. In the 1920's the MA and MSc degrees  were roughly as we have them today. However the pattern in physics was for the promising student to take the MSc at Queen's and continue to the PhD in the United Kingdom at Cambridge. Several influential figures followed this pattern. Some of these are featured later. There were ups and downs in graduate enrolment but as of 2017 there were 36 MSc students and 42 PhDs.

Homes of Physics

Physics or Natural Philosophy, which it came under, was initially taught in "Summerhill" along with other sciences, and then moved to Carruthers Hall in 1893.

Ontario Hall

Faculty of Physics in 1957
1957: A. Matthews, T. Tohver, M. Revzen, H. Evans, S. Scott, D. Hogg, G. McCracken, K. Shuy, D. Ryan, N Gantchev, J. Allen, W. Krisken, G. Turcott, R. Bradfield, A. Schultz, H. Jenzen, H.M. Cave, M. Love, G. Harrower, R.W. Sargent, H. Taylor, A. Johnston, P. Puhach
  • The Physics Department had a permanent home in the new Ontario Hall from 1902 until 1964. Initially it was shared with two other disciplines, but became sole occupier in 1931.
  • Nuclear physics thrived during this period and funding was found for a 70Mev electron synchrotron and an underground shielded laboratory as an annex to Ontario Hall. It is possible to view the annex which is now gloomy and wet. Ontario Hall on University Avenue presently houses the Art Department.

Stirling Hall

Stirling Hall Faculty
The Department of Physics - 1990, Link to the Faculty List
  • Stirling Hall became the present home of physics on its opening in 1964.
  • Members of the Department had a strong influence on the design and decoration of the building. Noteworthy are banked lecture theatres in sectors of the circular building around a central core which provides audio-visual services to the theatres and lecture demonstrations.
Foucalt Pendulum in Stirling Hall
  • The Foucault pendulum is another feature; the suspension is 8m long and the bob is 12.6kg. The present bob is the third. The first two were stolen, presumably, by students.
Greek letters at Stirling Hall
Mural depictions of scientific equipment on the walls of Stirling Hall
Mural depictions of Greek letters and other symbols used in physics on a wall of Stirling Hall
Mural depictions of Greek letters and other symbols used in physics on a wall of Stirling Hall.
  • The ceramic wall decorations in many places in the building depict scientific equipment, Greek letters and other symbols commonly used in physics. The Fraunhofer spectrum of the sun is displayed opposite the pendulum and fragments of Pythagoras proof of his celebrated theorem sit above the entrance to Theatre C.

What was taught as physics

Early physics courses

The Calendar of 1851/2 lists (note: this was after Faraday's electromagnetism discoveries , but before Maxwell):

  • 3 Greek and 3 Latin classes
  • The purpose of the Greek and Latin instruction was so that texts such as Euclid and Principia could be studied in the original language.
  • Logic and Rhetoric
  • Moral Philosophy
  • Mathematics:
    • Junior Class: Euclid Bks 1-6
    • Senior Class: Euclid Bks 11,12
    • 3rd Class:  Algebraic Geometry, Conic Sections, Newton's Principia, Calculus

  • Natural Philosophy: Properties of Matter, Statics, Dynamics, Hydrostatics, Hydrodynamics, Pneumatics, Optics, Heat, Electricity, Voltaic Electricity, Magnetism, Electromagnetism.
  • Degrees conferred: 3 MA, 8 BA.

50 years on: note that the 1891/2 Calendar lists less Latin and Greek — Principia now to be read in translation.

Meanwhile, what has been happening in physics?

  • 1873 Clerk Maxwell: theory of electromagnetism.
  • 1895 Rontgen: X-rays discovered.
  • 1896 Becquerel: radioactive decay.
  • 1897 J.J. Thomson: the discovery of the electron.

And at Queen's?

  • The Calendar of 1904/5 still lists Latin and Greek, Euclid and Frost's translation of Principia but no mention of atoms, electrons or Maxwell (except for Maxwell's Theory of Heat on the book list). That year there were 22 students in the senior physics class.
  • A major change occurred in 1906 with the appointment of Arthur Clark as Professor and Head. Clark was appointed over the objections of the then Head Marshall who had assumed he was appointed for life.
  • The 1910/11 Calendar now lists: electric waves, radioactivity and then 1913/14 adds: electromagnetism, variation of mass and length with velocity, electron theory of conduction.

But no courses entitled:  nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, solid state physics or relativity appeared until 1963.


There are three key figures who contributed greatly to the development of physics at Queen's in the early years and left their mark on the Department we have today.

Prof. Nathan Dupuis
Prof. Nathan Dupuis
  • Born in 1836, he was a local farmer's boy. He graduated from Queen's College with a BA in 1866 with top honours.
  • In 1868 he was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy and in 1880 Professor of Mathematics.
  • In the 1890's he championed the creation of the Queen's School of Mining and Agriculture, the forerunner of the Faculty of Practical (Applied) Science established in 1894 of which he was appointed first dean.
  • A practical man from his youth, he was a tinkerer and inventor. He designed the Grant Hall tower clock which ran until 1993, and designed and constructed several other clocks, models and lecture demonstrations on display in Stirling Hall.
  • He retired from teaching in 1911.

See Queen's 175th Anniversary Nathan Dupuis

Demonstration of transverse wave motion constructed by Prof. Dupuis
A lecture demonstration of transverse wave motion designed and constructed by Dupuis. The Physics Historical Collection.
The 9-Dial Clock designed and constructed by Dupuis for astronomical time-keeping.
The 9-Dial Clock designed and constructed by Dupuis for astronomical time-keeping.

Professor Arthur Clark
Professor Arthur Clark
  • BSc, PhD, Clark Univ. Mass.
  • In1906 he was appointed Queen's Professor of Physics and Dept. Head.
  • In 1919 he championed the creation in the Applied Science Faculty of Engineering Physics (Course H), Canada's first such program.
  • He established the organization and funding of science research.
  • He served 1919-43 as Dean of Applied Science.
  • He established the tradition of research in the Department of Physics. His research work included experiments on liquids and vapours near the critical point.
  • See Dean Arthur Lewis Clark - Maker of Queen's (PDF, 467KB)

photo of prof. Joseph Gray
Prof. Joseph "Joe" Gray
  • BSc, Univ. Melbourne
  • Gray's graduate studies were with Rutherford at the University of Manchester. He was appointed Queen's Chown Research Prof, 1924-52, and began the tradition of nuclear physics research at Queen's. Throughout his career he supervised the research of more than 40 students, several who went on to senior positions in universities e.g. Harry Gove at Rochester and Allan Bromley at Princeton, and several who returned and taught at Queen's.
  • Gray's noteworthy research work involved the softening of scattered X-rays and the scattered electron spectrum. The Royal Society of London: credited his work as  ''clearly foreshadowing the Compton effect" for which Compton later received the Nobel Prize.
  • See Joseph Alexander Gray
  • Nuclear physics continued with Bern Sargent — a Gray and then a Rutherford student, and became a major focus of the Department.
  • 1980's; George Ewan led the group beyond nuclear physics into particle astrophysics. This work was a blend of astronomy, nuclear physics and particle physics and centred on the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), the result of an international collaboration led from Queen's.
  • A major discovery at SNO on the nature of neutrinos led to the 2015 Nobel Prize awarded jointly to our Art MacDonald.
  • The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory
Artist Garth Tetsen's impression of the SNO detector
Artist Garth Tetsen's impression of the SNO detector
The SNO detector deep underground in a Sudbury mine
The SNO detector deep underground in a Sudbury mine

Three Characters

Two Queen's undergraduates who following the usual research pattern of the times were supervised by Gray at Queen's for the MSc and then by Rutherford at Cambridge, and returned to Queen's to teach:

  • Harold Cave, physics medal 1925
  • Bern Sargent, medal 1926

A third, Edmond Watson, a friend of Cave at Cambridge also came to Queen's.
All came to Queen's to begin long professorial careers, and are remembered by many of us.

Harold Cave 

A photo of the Cavendish Laboratory staff in 1927
A photo of the Cavendish Laboratory staff in 1927 showing: Sargent (back row in middle), Cave (back -1, 4th from R), Watson (back 2, 4th from R). Front Row: L-R: Cockroft, Mrs. Harpen, Kapitsa, Wilson, J.J Thomson, Rutherford, Langevin, Chadwick, Blackett, Dymond.
  • Queen's BA 1925, MA 1926 and on to graduate studies at Cambridge with Rutherford.
  • 1929-30: unbeknown to Rutherford, Cave went to Germany to study with Schrodinger (Berlin) and Sommerfeld (Munich).
  • 1930: appointed lecturer at Queen's.

Cave was notoriously forgetful, almost missing his PhD deadline.

Professor Hugh Evans (class of 1955) recalls Cave, in charge of the engineering physics laboratory, was slow to mark the students' lab books. Hugh went to Glasgow for graduate studies and on his return to Queen's with his PhD to teach, Cave gave him marked lab books for himself and his former classmates.

On a later occasion, while teaching 1st year engineers, Cave forgot to prepare the examination paper. Alerted to this on the day of the exam, he mobilised the staff, wrote the exam questions and page by page had it duplicated and run over to the exam hall. He died in 1992 at age 91.

Cave Rutherford Letter from 1930

A letter from Rutherford to his graduate student Cave. The Physics Historical Collection.

Bern Sargent

Queen's BA with the Medal in Physics 1926. He completed his MA under Gray in 1927 and went on to Cambridge for doctoral work under Rutherford and Ellis, and returned to Queen's as Lecturer in 1930. The work of his PhD degree on the beta spectrum laid an experimental foundation on which the radioactive decay theory of Enrico Fermi was based. This theory postulated the existence of the neutrino, a very weakly interacting particle which was the subject of later preeminent Queen's work.

In 1943, on leave of absence, Sargent was asked to join the Anglo-Canadian Atomic Energy Project in Montreal and then at Chalk River, where he served as Head of Nuclear Physics and then as Physics Division Head. He oversaw the development of the ZEEP nuclear pile and the NRX reactor which in the late 40's was the world's most intense neutron source. He returned to Queen's as Head of Physics in 1950 until 1967. He directed nuclear physics accelerator based research and taught until his retirement in 1972. He died in 1993 at age 87.

Edmund Watson

A student of Gray, then at McGill, and again Rutherford at Cambridge, Watson was lured to Queen's in 1930 as Lecturer. He developed an interest in oceanography and in 1932 began work on the Passamaquoddy Project Commission and later on the Bay of Fundy power project. He was seconded to the US Navy during WWII to work on sound transmission through layers deep in the Atlantic Ocean. He was a very skilled experimenter and set up and maintained a Standards Laboratory in the Dept. The Department has film of Edmond's celebrated lecture demonstration on electrostatics in which he ladles charge from one container to another, and uses a tiny gas flame to detect electric potential in the space around a charge. He died in 2001 at age 98.


Which brings us to the arrival of Alec Stewart in 1968 who followed Sargent as Head of Department. He had a celebrated career in condensed matter physics research first at Chalk River, and then at the University of North Carolina. The faculty complement increased greatly around this time; in particular condensed matter physics and engineering physics were strengthened. Many of those who joined the Department at that time still remember how it was.


I wish to acknowledge folks who have contributed to this, particularly:

  • Bernard Ziomkiewicz: Technologist, archivist and guardian of the Department's Historical Collection, who took many of the photographs.
  • Dave McLay for his ''125 Years of Physics at Queen's University 1842-1967".
  • Hugh Evans for his memories of The Faculty Of Applied Science.
  • Queen's Archives is acknowledged for the photograph of Nathan Dupuis, and for  the photograph of Allie Vibert Douglas: Loc#2303.9