University Professor Emeritus Innes K. MacKenzie Has Passed Away

Posted on Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

With the passing of Innes Mackenzie, the Physics Department mourns the man who, in a short period around 1970, laid its foundations, which proved to be deep and solid. Those of us who worked with him and those who knew him only by repute offer the MacKenzie family our deepest condolences. 

Before arriving in mid-career at the University of Guelph Innes had a remarkably wide set of experiences. At age two his parents brought him and his siblings from the bleak Outer Hebridean islands of Scotland to the flatlands of Kent County in Ontario where he grew up on a farm, collected flint arrow-heads from the fields, and developed a lifelong interest in the indigenous population of past centuries.   On completing high school in 1940 he joined the RCAF and served until 1945 as a radar mechanic on loan to the RAF in both the UK and North Africa.  In later years he wrote a fascinating memoir of this period. Returning home, he was married to Inez in 1946, rapidly completed BSc and MSc degrees in Physics at the University of Western Ontario, and proceeded to PhD studies in Nuclear Physics at UBC. The latter qualification led to an eight-year stint (1953-1960) at the Defence Research Board during half of which he was seconded to the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

To those who knew Innes as a widely-read man of broad intellectual interests it is no surprise that he gravitated to academic life at age 38. It was at Dalhousie University that he developed his lifelong interest in the use of positron annihilation to investigate properties of materials with emphasis in defects in metals. Always on the lookout for new methods which would enable him to do something different, he spent time at Chalk River Nuclear Labs honing his skills in the instrumentation of nuclear spectroscopy. This led to his use of Ge gamma ray detectors to determine positron annihilation lineshapes, work which eventually propelled him to the top of his field.

When in the mid-1960s the University of Guelph was assembled from three founding colleges, Wellington College of Arts and Science was created and a few years later was split into three colleges one of which was the College of Physical Science. The incoming President Dr William Winegard (later Minister of Science in the Mulroney Government and revered by the large cohort whom he hired into U. of G.) made it clear that a new university needed strength in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Statistics and brought in department chairs from across the country to expand the personnel and activities in these units far beyond what had previously been the case within the Ontario Agricultural College. Arriving in 1967, Innes Mackenzie was given this mandate in Physics and responded to it with vigour, seeking advice by letter, phone and travelling in order to assemble an intake of promising new young faculty. The writer is incredibly fortunate to be one of that group.

His success was quickly manifest. Consider the faculty cohort that he hired in the 1968-1972 period: Robin Ollerhead, Iain Campbell, Ross Hallett, Chris Gray, Ken Jeffrey, John Simpson, Jimmy Law, Gabriel Karl and Duk Poll. Karl, Gray and Simpson were elected fellows of the Royal Society of Canada; Ollerhead and Jeffrey were successively department chair; Hallett served as assistant vice-president for research infrastructure; Campbell served as dean of CPES and then as provost  and vice-president academic; Simpson led the Guelph contribution to the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, working with Law, Ollerhead  and other Guelph staff, faculty and students all of whom contributed to the eventual award of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics to SNO Director Art MacDonald of Queen’s University. And nobody was more delighted by that award than Innes Mackenzie since Art MacDonald was his first graduate student at Dalhousie. Art was always generous in recognizing the start given him by Innes. Although not an official member of the Guelph team, Innes contributed valuable measurements pertinent to the integrity of the plastic lining of the huge subterranean neutrino detector. On the staff side, Innes hired Tom Kehn in 1967; in later years Tom took on extensive responsibility for the teaching laboratories and carried out this role with a passion for perfection.   

After his hiring spree was over, Innes decided to return to teaching and research despite a faculty petition begging him to remain in charge. Always striving to expand his scientific horizons, he spent seven summers at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York State. During his overall career he spent periods at Oxford, Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, the Max Planck Institute for Metals in Stuttgart, the Technical University of Denmark, and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. In 1981 he had the distinction of lecturing at the prestigious Enrico Fermi International Summer School in Varenna, Italy. His wife Inez was also an enthusiastic traveller and on these many trips they made many lasting friends.

Innes’s talent-spotting and his personal research are only facets of the story. He was an engaged and engaging teacher who believed in learning by doing. He was admired for his genuine concern for students at every level and his ability to inspire and motivate them in the senior undergraduate labs and especially in his research labs. His cohort of young faculty and his graduate students learned much from his generosity and approachability. He worked hard to develop senior teaching labs that contained “near-research-quality” equipment. Several of the students that he mentored rose to very high ranks. One first-year undergraduate, Mats Selen, was persuaded by Innes to divert from his plans to be a vet and to study physics instead. In 2015 The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Teaching named Selen, now Associate Head of Physics at the University of Illinois (Urbana), as one their four US “Professors of the Year”.  When Innes retired in 1987 the large attendance at a Festschrift organized for him by the department attested to local and world-wide respect for him as a scholar and a gentleman.

After retirement Innes was made University Professor Emeritus and continued to work in his lab. And now the tinkerer/inventor within him came to the fore. Having always been interested in the history of gamma-ray and X-ray scattering he began to develop measurement techniques based upon these processes. These methods were applied in a non-destructive manner to all sorts of real-life problems.  Examples included measurement of paint thickness on automobiles, monitoring of ice build-up and control of de-icing on aircraft wings, and also the study mentioned above involving the detector lining at SNO. He also had more time to expand his always voracious reading about the populations of the Americas long before the arrival of Europeans. He even penned some thoughts of his own on these and various other matters, and circulated them to a select group of friends within the department. Even after his laboratory work wound down, he was a frequent and most welcome visitor to the department, and people would turn up enthusiastically to the coffee room (referred to by Innes’ daughter Cathy  as his “Club”) if they learned that he was there. In fact that room was re-named as the “Innes MacKenzie Interaction Room”, a title which needs no further explanation to those who knew Innes.      

In closing we return to the early days after the hiring of the new cohort. It was thanks to the example and personality of their leader and to the many social events that Inez and Innes hosted at their home that such a cohesive and mutually supportive department was built. And that cohesion, so strong and so valuable, so responsible for all the successes noted here and more, remains as a central value today. Above all we remember Innes’s decency, his kindness and his profound commonsense. While the last of these doubtless had some roots in his life experience it came in the main from deep within him.

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