Canada and the Nobel Prize: Biographies, Portraits and Fascinating Facts – BLACK (CSS)

BLACK, Harry. Canada and the Nobel Prize: Biographies, Portraits and Fascinating Facts. Markham, ON: Pembroke Publishers, 2002. 120p. Resenha de: BRADLEY, Jon G. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.

Canadians do not like heroes, and so they do not have any
(George Woodcock, 1970, Canada and the Canadians).

Designed to be an introduction to that rarefied arena of the Nobel Prize, this little book sets out to highlight those notables who have had some kind of connection with Canada. Structurally, the book is divided into three parts: (1) an introductory section briefly describing the life and times of Swedish chemist and inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel along with the creation of the prizes that bear his name (13 pages); (2) a much longer section, the heart of the book if you will, that describes the selected twenty-two individuals and one organization who have a Canadian connection and who have been honoured with a Nobel (88 pages); and (3) a small index and reference list (11 pages) that rounds out the publication.

In many ways, Canada and the Nobel Prize: Biographies, Portraits and Fascinating Facts is an uneven publication. In the first place, the overall orientation and selection criteria are problematic. The age-old question of nationality is raised and the author himself acknowledges some unease with this orientation. Designed to highlight those Nobel Laureates who have had a significant link to Canada (p. 9), the author seems to be really hunting at times to find these so-called significant Canadian links. I am somewhat surprised that those Nobel winners who may have visited the CN Tower, the Columbia ice fields, and/or traveled the Cabot Trail are not included in the text. Clearly, some liberties have been taken with the word significant such that just about any old connection will do. My guess is that a much slimmer volume would have resulted if a more stringent allocation had been made.

Some of the notables do indeed have a major and/or personal connection with Canada: John Polanyi (Chemistry, 1986) spent formative years at Canadian universities; Robert Mundell (Economics, 1999) was born in Ontario and schooled in British Columbia; and, Charles Higgins (Medicine, 1966) was born and raised in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, too many less secure connections abound. Other than being born in Vancouver, William Vickrey’s (Economics, 1996) Canadian credentials are weak but may well be stronger than those of William Giauque (Chemistry, 1949) who is included in this stellar list simply by the oft-putting and totally unanticipated event of being born in Canada of American citizens who were on a short pleasure trip. Notwithstanding Ernest Hemingway’s (Literature, 1954) brief sojourn at the Toronto Star, his inclusion in this so-called Canadian list seems questionable. Similarly, Saul Bellow’s (Literature, 1976) few early years in Montreal seem tenuous, at best, as solid grounds for a meaningful Canadian connection.

The twenty-two biographies and one institutional history take up the bulk of the pages of Canada and the Nobel Prize. Arranged alphabetically, each biography opens with a clear and attractive pen and ink sketch by the author. This personal touch is nice and softens those all too formal and staged photographs that usually accompany such histories. Even here, unfortunately, the overarching unevenness of the book continues in that some winners, such as, Andrew Schally (Medicine, 1977), Ernest Rutherford (Chemistry, 1908) and David Hubel (Medicine, 1981), are allocated a page or so while truer Canadians, the likes of Frederick Banting (Medicine, 1923), Lester B. Pearson (Peace, 1957) and Michael Smith (Chemistry, 1993), get the royal treatment of four or more pages.

Even the individual biographies themselves contribute to this reviewer’s sense of unease by a tone and word choice that can best be described as put-down ness. In other words, instead of using this opportunity to instruct, explain, and really make known the achievements of these notables, the author too often couches difficult topics in a jocular vernacular that does little other than confuse and confound. This reviewer finds statements such as Taube’s discoveries may seem vague and somewhat esoteric if you are not a chemist or biochemist (p. 100) along with the description of William S. Vickrey as a saint (p. 109) somewhat lacking in focus. The use of such ill-defined and grandiose verbiage may titillate a word connoisseur but does little to educate the general public. Furthermore, what are middle and/or secondary school students to make of such observations? True, the discoveries of some of these folks can often be described as cutting edge and many of the science awards are indeed advanced, theoretical and a trifle difficult for the average lay person to comprehend. However, this challenging and instructional role should have been a major thrust of this book and, in this reviewer’s eyes, a wonderful opportunity was missed by not attempting to communicate in every day language the achievements, accomplishments and impact of these many and varied discoveries.

In spite of my many reservations and concerns, I think that Canada and the Nobel Prize has a special place in every middle/high school library. This volume must be used by teachers and librarians for the simple reason that it highlights academic accomplishment and long-term intellectual investigations. It is a counterweight to all of those other volumes that depict physical prowess or artistic ability as the only worthy virtues in contemporary society. Our libraries are filled with biographies, autobiographies and novels (many of which are nothing more than self-serving renditions) depicting the accomplishments of those with little education, who do not even value formal education, and who are athletes, or sports super and even less than super stars, or others who have been temporarily elevated to an icon status through some questionable artistic ability based on hype rather than talent. Additionally, the contemporary fascination with such television shows as Canadian Idol strengthens the all too prevalent concept among too many young people that academic achievement and intellectual excellence are not worthy endeavors within our society.

This perceived imbalance has been partially rectified by Black’s small polemic. He certainly describes and highlights the pinnacles reached by these giants of the academic world. It is a pleasure to read about people who made academic pursuits, in all forms, a life long goal. Canada and the Nobel Prize is needed! I wish that it had been stronger in certain areas and that it had taken on more of an educational orientation. Nonetheless, it fills a void and I hope that Harry Black will seek out other Canadians who have made meaningful long-term contributions to humankind and tell their stories.


Woodcock, George. (1970). Canada and the Canadians. London: Faber.

Jon G. Bradley – Faculty of Education. McGill University. Montreal, Quebec.

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