General Articles


To Canada’s teams in the atom race, Dr. David Keys is coach, captain and father - confessor

PIERRE BERTON December 1 1947
General Articles


To Canada’s teams in the atom race, Dr. David Keys is coach, captain and father - confessor

PIERRE BERTON December 1 1947



ABOUT a year ago, Dr. David Keys, for 25 years professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal, got a long-distance phone call. Ottawa, in the person of Dr. C. J. Mackenzie, president of the National Research Council, was on the line.

“David,” said Dr. Mackenzie. “How would you like to go up to Chalk River?”

The burly, good-looking professor paused for a moment to glance at the pile of books and papers choking his desk in the gloomy brick-walled office in McGill’s ancient physics building. Then he said: “I don’t think I can make it this week. I’m too busy. But maybe I could take a run up next week.” Dr. Mackenzie had to explain that that wasn’t what he meant at all. He wanted David Keys to boss one of the most important scientific projects in North America—the atomic research plant which had been carved out of 17 square miles of bush in the isolated lumbering country of the upper Ottawa River.

Dr. Keys accepted. For almost a year now he has been Canada’s atomic chief.

David Arnold Keys is a quiet, slow-spoken scientist who takes things easily, never gets rattled, seldom betrays irritation or surprise. He is not a nuclear physicist, has never done any atomic research, was as surprised as anybody when he read about the Bomb in the newspapers. His specialty has been geophysics: the science of determining the structure of the earth; his forte has

been delivering his chatty, enthusiastic lectures to McGill’s ever-growing physics classes. He had fully expected to work the rest of his life in McGill’s cloistered atmosphere.

But the National Research Council wasn’t looking for an atomic scientist to run the show at Chalk River. If had one already in the person of youngish, curly-haired Dr. Bennett Lewis, onetime head of the British Admiralty’s radar development, now chief of research under Dr. Keys at Chalk River. What was wanted was an Eisenhower type: a man who could shoulder responsibility, command respect, make people work well together.

“We thought at first we’d need a darn good factory superintendent,” a member of the council recalled. In Dr. Keys the council found more than that: a man who had a broad knowledge of all science and who could get on well with everybody —“all the qualifications that in industry would get

you a lot of money,” as a colleague put it.

They also wanted a man whose wife would tie “willing to listen patiently to tales of babies with the colic.” Dr. and Mrs. Keys filled the hill. They moved to Chalk River last February and since then Dr. Keys has been, in the words of an associate, “a sort of combined mayor of a city, head of a working gang and fat her-confessor rolled into one.” For this, the people of Canada pay him $10,000 a year.

At 57, David Keys Continued on pa^e 71

To Canada’s teams in the atom race, Dr. David Keys is coach, captain and father - confessor

Continued from page 9

still looks young. Until four years ago there were no grey streaks in the shock of black curly hair which drops over bis brow. A courtly man, he always seems about to break into a broad grin. He never raises his voice and when he speaks there is always the suggestion of a chuckle at the corners of his mouth. Robust and heavy-set, he was at birth given less than a year to live and spent much of bis childhood as a semi-invalid. He is almost blind in one eye, which is slightly crossed, and wears glasses. In his early days at university he had difficulty blowing glass because of this lack of stereoscopic vision, but more recently at. McGill when tested by an instrument used for measuring the depth of perception of servicemen he did as well with one eye as most men did with two.

What About the Bomb?

Chalk River, and the neighboring town of Deep River, where scientists, workers and their families live, is divided into four departments: re-

search, engineering, medical and administrative.

The most important division is research, which is made up of squads of Ph.D.’s from a variety of universities who are slowly groping their way along the dim corridors of nuclear physics. The concept of the individual scientist has been virtually abandoned at Chalk River. Today, nuclear scientists work together like football teams along fairly well defined channels. Some old-time scientists deplore this apparent lack of individuality, hut the consensus at Chalk River is that

no one man today can amass enough knowledge to accomplish anything by himself. The Chalk River scientist , to some extent, is a cog in a wheel.

Dr. Keys, the man who keeps the cogs working smoothly, is himself a typical 1947-model scientist — undramatic, unspectacular, untemperamental. One of his main jobs is to make sure that the men in his laboratories do not descend to the level of virtual lab assistants—that the co-ordination doesn’t reach the point where free research is completely stifled. “One of Keys’ main tasks,” an associate pointed out, “is to make Chalk River as much like a university as possible.”

Outwardly, at. least, Dr. Keys’ conscience is undisturbed by the implications of the atomic research he bosses. He is quick to point out that Chalk River is not producing atomic bombs or anything like them, hut is engaged in peacetime research, centring mainly around such things as radioactive isotopes. Dr. Keys is loth to forecast just whore this research will lead and when he is asked he is fond of quoting Faraday ’s famous reply to a woman, who on hearing him lecture on electromagnetic induction asked him; “What use is it?” “Madame,” Faraday replied, “what use is a newborn babe?”

One thing he is sure of: Bomb or no bomb, t he research must go on. “'Today, scientists are interested in the new discoveries they may make rather than in the danger of atomic bombs,” he says. “When they first started using dynamite as a war weapon, I don’t suppose that was the purpose of the scientific people who invented it.” To Dr. Keys and the men who work with him the Bomb is a by-product of research into nuclear physics, not an end point. If the politicians want to go ahead and use the scientists’findings to blow people up, well then the Chalk River scientists shrug their shoulders: it is out of t.lieir hands. If man is foolish enough to misuse science in this way, they say, perhaps he deserves to be blown sky high. But that should not stop research.

Dr. Keys himself seldom philosophizes on the pros and cons of atomic research. But there is a clue to his thinking in the 1944 edition of College Physics, the textbook which he coauthored with three other scientists and which last year sold 22,000 copies in the 50 or more universities which use it. In it, Dr. Keys, speculating on the force that could be unleashed by nuclear research, allowed himself a moment of reflection on the subject. “Men,” he wrote, “are scarcely intelligent enough to use such information at present.”

“Well,” says Dr. Keys, when faced with this, “of course we didn’t know about atomic bombs then.” And he adds pleasantly, “Now, man will just have to get intelligent, that’s all.”

Dr. Keys’ field has never been narrow. A prodigious reader, he was well acquainted with nuclear physics at McGill even though he had done no work in this field. His background includes a solid training in Latin and Greek and at the university he was a strong advocate of keeping Latin on the prescience curriculum.

Began School at Nine

He gets his scientific bent from his mother’s side, his classical leanings from his father. His maternal grandfather was an architect, his maternal uncle a prominent chemist. His mother was a concert pianist who made her debut at the age of seven and who, at 87, still commits sections of poetry to memory almost daily. His father was, in his time, one of the best-loved and most colorful professors at the University of Toronto. The elder Keys wore a black beard, spoke five languages, taught Anglo-Saxon, made nightly entries in his diary in Italian, and had one of the best autograph collections in the country. His interests ranged from prize fighting to classical music.

David Keys got a slow start in the race for learning. He was a premature baby, badly handicapped from birth by his poor eyesight. He started his schooling against doctor’s orders at nine and learned to read at 10. Although he missed another year of schooling, due to illness, he was able to matriculate at 17. He decided, at 12, to be a physics professor at a university. His interest in the subject was sparked by Sir John MacLennan, professor of physics and a friend of his father’s who used to let him wander through the labs at Toronto.

Young David had a workshop in his home where he made a camera, grinding the lens himself, and a dynamo out of wood. When he was 12 he sold an article to Popular Mechanics telling how to make a Geissler tube (similar to a neon tube). His exposition was so scientific that the magazine asked him to tone it down a bit.

The elder Keys took his family to Europe in 1910 and David spent his first university year at the University of Munich. Here he studied elementary physics under Dr. Wilhelm Röntgen, the most brilliant scientist of his age and discoverer of the X-ray. The following year he enrolled at Toronto and found his term in Germany unrecognized. He had to repeat it.

Keys’ education cost his family nothing. He went through Toronto, Harvard and Cambridge on scholarships, boarding at Trinity College in his undergraduate years, where he founded a science club. For a time he acted as tutor in the Eaton family, teaching arithmetic to young Timothy (grandson of the department store founder) and bribing him to do his sums quickly with the promise that he’d show him some physics experiments. His father —a second cousin to Lady Eaton—had also tutored the Eatons and it was here that Keys first met his bride-to-be, a New Brunswick girl who was a nurse in the Eaton household and a close companion of Lady Eaton. They were later married from the Timothy Eaton Memorial church and the wedding reception was held at the Eaton home.

Introduction to the Atom

In his fourth year at U. of T., Keys was a student in Dr. MacLennan’s newly formed honor physics course. There were only three in the class (the

others being Archie Lewis, now Dean of the Ontario College of Education in Toronto and Andy Thompson, who heads the Department of Transport’s Meteorological Division a few blocks away). It was an exciting period to study physics. Keys heard a lot about the new science of the atom from Dr. MacLennan, who was one of the first men on the continent to accept and teach the Bohr theory, with its concept of planetary electrons revolving around a nuclear sun. “There’s energy wrapped up there,” Dr. MacLennan used to say, and he would tell his students that some day a glass of water would be used to run an automobile. Nobody thought of an atomic bomb. The atom was to be a source of peacetime energy—that was all.

During the first war Keys served overseas with Sir John MacLennan, working on antisubmarine devices. He returned to Harvard, where he was immensely popular, and got Ph.D.’s both at Harvard and Cambridge. In 1922, on leaving Cambridge he got four offers of jobs—from Harvard, McGill, Cambridge and Toronto. The best offer came from Harvard, the worst from his old Alma Mater. Dr. Keys had no desire to leave Canada so he joined the faculty at McGill. When he left, 25 years later, he was awarded an honorary degree and got the biggest ovation ever heard at a spring convocation.

A friend, searching around to find a phrase to explain Dr. Keys’ popularity at McGill, pointed out that “even the freshmen, who were forced to take physics and hated it with a black hatred, were very fond of Dr. Keys.” One reason for this was Keys’ tremendous enthusiasm for his subject. He had a passion for graphic demonstrations and his face would light up with genuine pleasure that would carry over to the class. He never contented himself with the traditional, prescribed experiments and often spent two hours after five o’clock setting up apparatus for the next day’s lecture. He illustrated centrifugal force, for example, by introducing a huge spinning table into the classroom, on which students were seated and allowed to fly off at tangents as the speed increased. Pie demonstrated static electricity with two huge charged toy balloons which would repel each other vigorously before a delighted class.

Out of the Groove

During the last war Dr. Keys became known as a willing horse who would accept any burden. He increased his lecture schedule and did the war work, too. The Wartime Bureau of Technical Personnel wanted him to come to Ottawa full time. He refused, but ended up as the Bureau’s research director while carrying the full academic burden at McGill as well. Early in the war, Dr. Keys had plumped for elementary radar training at McGill. He fought an uphill battle against an apathetic government and faculty but finally won out. In addition to his other duties he turned out 2.000 radar technicians for the RCAF. When Dr. Norman Shaw, head of the physics department, became ill, Dr. Keys took over as temporary head as well. By now he w'as working 60 to 70 hours a week.

Dr. Keys left McGill with mixed feelings. P’or 25 years his life had run smoothly in the same academic groove. His life had taken on something of a pattern—summers spent doing fieldwork in geophysics, Saturday nights playing bridge and billiards with the same three professors and their wives, periodical discussions at the famous and now defunct “Greenhouse Follies” —a tight little group of faculty mem-

bers who drank beer, ate the late Prof. Francis Lloyd’s famous meat balls in the old greenhouse attached to the biology building and discussed everything from the semicircular canals in frog’s ears to controversial subjects of university politics. The Follies held its final meeting to bid good-by to Dr. Keys and to his close friend, Dr. James B. Collip, codiscoverer of insulin, who left for the University of Western Ontario. Dr. Keys looks back nostalgically on this cloistered life. In the bright and energetic town of Deep River and in the ultramodern labs of Chalk River he often feels like a freshly graduated student, starting out anew.

“When I first decided to come up here I felt I was going to another planet,” Dr. Keys recalls. “Now it doesn’t seem so far away.” Actually, the town of Deep River is the most unisolated isolated community in the country. It is a unique town—the first atomic village in Canada. It is as new as plutonium and its 1,500 residents (average age 33) have all the restless energy of the electron. Almost everybody in town works for the Government. Deep River has no cemetery, no mothers-in-law, no traffic bylaws, no elected governing body, no grandmothers, no slums, no main street, no private property, no taxes.

The birth rate is double the Canadian average. There were 80 babies born in the community in 1946. There are more than 200 children under school age and about 230 more attending public school.

Deep River didn’t grow like most towns; it is one of the few scientifically planned villages in Canada. Its 358 houses are set on winding crescents and circles. Its business district is confined to a single building. The town looks out on the Ottawa River, which is wide and sluggish at this point, and the whole community presente the appearance of a luxury summer resort.

The Deep River community where the Keys home is, and the Chalk River plant, 11 miles away by road, are both on the Ottawa. Deep River is the old name for this section of the waterway. Chalk River takes its name from the CPR divisional point which in turn is named for a small tributary of the Ottawa not far away. Petawawa military camp is close by and the largest neighboring community is Pembroke, a town of more than 10,000, about 30 miles distant. Relations with the larger town are cordial although some Pembrokians still believe last spring’s heavy rains were caused by the atomic pile.

A good deal of Dr. Keys’ limited spare time is taken up by one or other of the 42 clubs which the townspeople have organized among themselves. A week night may find him demonstrating his telescope to the Girl Guides, opening the newly formed Citizenship Forum or bowling on the directors’ team in the five-pin league. Deep River probably has more clubs than any

other comparable community in the world. They range from skiing, boatbuilding, archery and square knotting to art, chess and music appreciation. “Sometimes,” one scientist remarked, 1 think we’re too well organized.”

The Chalk River plant is one of the crossroads of the scientific world and for this reason Dr. Keys has a heavy entertainment job to do. He is in charge of the world’s largest heavywater plant—a huge hundred-building layout that has experimental facilities not offered anywhere else in the world. Scientists and other visitors arrive at the rate of three or four a day and a good many stay at the Keys home, a white, two-story frame structure identical with the other houses on the street. (There are four types of houses in Deep River, ranging from $22 a month for four-room temporary bungalows to $65 for houses like Dr. Keys’ There is no domestic help or casual labor in Deep River so much of the entertainment burden falls on Mrs. Keys. “The Keys’ will kill themselves entertaining,” a close friend said recently.

Secrecy Distasteful

Deep River is a peculiar town in more ways than one. It is certainly the only town in Canada where a wife cannot say: “Well, John, what went on at the office today?” No one talks shop, because shop is mainly a secret.

Every person who goes to work at “The Plant,” from the lowest typewriter jockey to Dr. Keys himself, has been thoroughly investigated by the RCMP. One Russian-born lab technician, for example, had to supply nine character references. The Mounties checked every one before she got the job. Scientists at Chalk River are sometimes interviewed by Mounties regarding the political beliefs of their associates. On one of these occasions a chemist told the enquiring officer that he knew nothing about his co-workers except that a couple of them might vote CCF. “Oh, that’s all right,” the officer replied. “I vote that way myself.”

Secrecy is distasteful to all scientists, Dr. Keys included. At the same time, Dr. Keys admits, nobody at Chalk River knows exactly what can be done to relieve it. They do not feel that the actual secrets, which include the more recent scientific discoveries, can be placed on the open market. Dr. Keys admits ruefully that gone are the golden days when Sir Humphrey Davy, British physicist, could exchange information with French scientists in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars.

As for secrecy at Chalk Rivei*, he is the first to make sure that it is enforced. Not long ago his son John, visiting him at the plant, was improperly cleared by security guards. When Dr. Keys discovered this he was as angry as he would have been if his son were an utter stranger. if

"They Taught Me Treason"

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