Steacie Edgar William Richard

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(b. Westmount, Quebec, Canada, 25 December 1900; d. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 28 August 1962)

physical chemistry.

Steacie was the only child of Captain Richard Steacie and Alice Kate McWood. His father was born in Ballinasloe, Northern Ireland, from which he emigrated at about the age of twenty to settle in Montreal. Edgar was brought up in comfortable circumstances but was only fourteen when his father died. He was a student at the Royal Military College in Kingston from 1919 to 1920 and then transferred to McGill University, where he obtained his B.Sc. (1923), M.Sc. (1924), and Ph.D. (1926). He pursued postdoctoral study in Frankfurt and Leipzig and at King’s College. London (1934–1935). He was made associate professor at McGill in 1937 but in 1939 he moved to the National Research Council of Canada. He was president of the council of Canada. He was president of the council from 1952 to 1962.

In 1925 Steacie married Dorothy Catalina Day; they had two children, Diane Jeanette (Mrs. W. A. Magill) and John Richard Brian.

Steacie published many articles in scientific journals and wrote three books: Introduction to Physical Chemistry, with O. Maass (1926); Atomic and Free Radical Reactions (1946); and Free Radical Mechanisms (1946).

In the early stages of his career, Steacie established an enviable reputation in the field of photochemistry, especially in the kinetics of gas reactions and their interpretation by free radical mechanisms. He maintained this interest in photochemistry even after taking up administration duties. A steady stream of postdoctoral fellows came to work in his Ottawa laboratory, and a whole generation of young chemists were strongly influenced by him.

As early as 1934 Steacie used reaction mechanisms involving free radicals to interpret the kinetics of thermal decomposition reactions of organic compounds. In 1937 he obtained further evidence on the mechanisms of organic pyrolyses using deuterated compounds. He then extended his interest in reaction mechanisms to photolytic decompositions of a variety of simple organic compounds and to photosensitization by vapors of metals such as mercury, cadmium, and zinc. Using these various techniques he obtained kinetic data on the rates of elementary chemical processes. The extensive studies by Steacie and his many students formed the basis for his authoritative Atomic and Free Radical Reactions.

The development of Steacie’s administrative career was linked to the development of the National Research Council of Canada. Founded in 1916, the Research Council underwent an enormous expansion during World War II under the direction of C. J. Mackenzie and emerged with an established reputation for good work. During his tenure as president of the council, Steacie helped bring to fruition long-range plans for the growth of Canadian science, partly by the development of the Research Council laboratories themselves and partly by the encouragement of strong scientific centers in Canadian universities. Here his emphasis was on scholarship programs and the support of qualified individuals doing fundamental research. He will be especially remembered for his enthusiastic support of the postdoctoral fellowship program and for the huge increase in university support that took place under him. As chairman of the council, Steacie handled its proceedings with exceptional skill–never insisting on his own viewpoint but often making a masterly summary of the situation and coming forward with an acceptable proposal at the right time.

Outside the council, Steacie defended the interests of its scientists with great skill and vigor. His presidency coincided approximately with the period in which nations and governments became aware not only of the increasing importance of science to national well-being and security but also of the importance of developing an appropriate relationship between science and government.


I. Oringinal Works. L. Marion (see below) lists some 230 scientific papers by Steacie. His works include Laboratory Exercises in General Chemistry (Montreal, 1929), written with W. H. Hatcher and N. N. Evans; An Introduction to the Principles of Physical Chemistry (New York, 1931; 2nd ed., 1939), written with O. Maass; Atomic and Free Radical Reactions (New York, 1946; 2nd ed., 1954); and Free Radical Mechanisms (New York, 1946). See also Science in Canada. Selections From the Speeches of E. W. R. Steacie, J.D. Babbitt, ed. (Toronto, 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. On Steacie and his work, see L. Marion, “E. W. R. Steacie. 1900–1962,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 10 (1964), 257–281, with bibliography; and W. A. Noyes, Jr., convocation address at the opening of the E. W. R. Steacie building for chemistry at Carleton Univ., 22 Oct. 1965.

J. W. T. Spinks