Alex G. Harrison

Born: April 1, 1931 | Peterborough, ON, CA

Alex G. Harrison was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario and decided to study chemistry, and completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Harrison went to McMaster University for a PhD, working on thyroid function and thyroxine in Harry Thode’s lab. The sulfur cycle introduced him to mass spectrometry. Harrison’s first academic position was as lecturer at the University of Toronto, where he began research into ion molecule reactions. Harrison became active in the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, serving on the board of directors. He received the Izaak Walton Killam Research Fellowship allowing two years solely to research. Harrison discusses international contributions to the field of mass spectrometry. He believes that having trained many good mass spectrometrists is one of his major contributions. He credits his mentors for giving him encouragement and the freedom to explore. Though the field is radically changed from his early days, he believes that mass spectrometry has much still to provide to science.

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0905
No. of pages: 100
Minutes: 192

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
13 November 2013
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Abstract of Interview

Alex G. Harrison was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, one of two sons. His parents were farmers but had the Scottish appreciation for education. Harrison attended a one-room school, where his aunt was teacher. He won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario and decided to study chemistry. Harrison completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. Next, he went to McMaster University for a PhD. He worked on thyroid function and thyroxine in Harry Thode’s lab, getting a much-cited publication. The sulfur cycle introduced him to mass spectrometry. His postdoctoral applications of his PhD work, still in Thode’s lab, garnered him two more publications. He did a second postdoc on free radical mass spectrometry with Fred Lossing at National Research Council (NRC). He married during this time, and he took up skiing at Paul Kebarle’s urging. Harrison’s first academic position was as lecturer at the University of Toronto, where he began research into ion molecule reactions. He earned tenure, taught, and became associate chair of the department. With funding from the NRC, Harrison was able to purchase a double-focusing mass spectrometer and set up a service lab. A chemical ionization (CI) mass spectrometer enabled him to analyze a broader array of compounds. Harrison became active in the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), serving on the board of directors. He organized a regional lab at McMaster. When he received the Izaak Walton Killam Research Fellowship he was able to dedicate two years solely to research; he began working on negative ion chemistry and produced another much-cited publication. Reactive collisions and fast atom bombardment (FAB) and peptides and b ions have occupied him since. Taking early retirement, Harrison was able to keep his lab and continue to work on b ions. He still maintains collaborations with Talat Yalcin, Bela Paizs, and Benjamin Bythell, and is still publishing. Harrison discusses international contributions to the field of mass spectrometry. He feels that current mass spec work is perhaps too much focused on development, rather than research. He believes that having trained many good mass spectrometrists is one of his major contributions. He credits his mentors for giving him encouragement and the freedom to explore; and he also praises his wife. He describes his own mentoring style. He celebrates that there are more women in science, especially environmental science. He considers mass spectrometry less competitive than other fields, and more collegial and cooperative. Though the field is radically changed from his early days, he believes that mass spectrometry has much still to provide to science, that its future is neither predictable nor stagnant.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1952 University of Western Australia BSc Chemistry
1953 University of Western Ontario MSc Chemistry
1956 McMaster University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

McMaster University

1956 to 1957
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Chemistry

National Research Council Canada

1957 to 1959
Postdoctoral Fellow, Chemistry

University of Toronto

1959 to 1960
Lecturer, Department of Chemistry
1960 to 1962
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry
1962 to 1967
Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry
1967 to 1993
Professor, Department of Chemistry
1971 to 1974
Associate Chair, Department of Chemistry
1993 to 2014
Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemistry

University of Warwick

1974
Visiting Professor, Department of Molecular Sciences

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

1982
Professeur Invité, Institut de Chimie Physique

University of Colorado, Boulder

1989
Visiting Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1962 to 1964

Alfred P. Sloan Fellow Award

1971

Noranda Lecture Award, Chemical Institute of Canada

1971

Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada

1980

Visiting Distinguished Alumni Lecturer, McMaster University

1985 to 1987

Killam Research Fellow

1986

Maccoll Lecturer, British Mass Spectrometry Society

1995

Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry Award of Excellence

2005 to 2014

Alex Harrison Graduate Fellowship in Analytical Mass Spectrometry, University of Toronto

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Parents farmers. One-room schoolhouse; Scottish emphasis on education’s value. Won two-year scholarship to University of Western Ontario; finished both BSc and MSc there. Christian Sivertz’s influence. Paying tuition; raised calf that won $900 prize.

McMaster University and Early Career
7

Entered PhD program at McMaster University. Worked in Harry Thode’s lab on thyroid and thyroxine; also sulfur cycle, requiring mass spectrometry; using homemade spectrometer. Wrote much-cited publication. Continued as postdoc in Thode’s lab. Isotope geochemistry. Postdoc at National Research Council (NRC), working for Fred Lossing on free radical mass spectrometry. Married. Paul Kebarle. Building or adapting instruments.

University of Toronto
21

Accepted lecturer position at University of Toronto. Given mass spectrometer by Donald LeRoy. Ion molecule reactions. Frank Field, Burnaby Munson, Victor Talrose, Jean Futrell. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship gave him two years of funding. Earned tenure. Teaching duties; becoming associate chair of department, bringing back analytical chemistry, and being responsible for undergraduate program. When Sloan Fellowship ended, NRC increased funding. Funding from NRC to purchase double-focusing mass spectrometer; set up service lab.

Conferences, Sabbaticals, and Mass Spec Research
35

Attendance at conferences. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Origins of American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS). Chemical ionization (CI) mass spectrometer. Seymour Meyerson. Attending international conferences of ASMS in Oxford, England, and Paris, France. Sabbatical with Keith Jennings at University of Warwick. Tino Gäumann in Lausanne, Switzerland. Organized regional lab at McMaster, with gas-phase mass spec at University of Toronto; funding from Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Adding quadrupole instrument. Recycling used mass spectrometers. Izaak Walton Killam Research Fellowship: no teaching for two years; began working on negative ion chemistry. Another much-cited publication. Reactive collisions. Fast atom bombardment (FAB) and peptides and b ions. Talat Yalcin from Turkey.

Early Retirement
60

Able to keep lab and office, continue to work on b ions. Funding decreasing after emeritus status granted. Supervising only fourth-year student research. Continues collaborations with Yalcin, Bela Paizs, Benjamin Bythell; publishes. Gas-phase basicities and proton affinities. Sequencing and scrambling. Descriptions of his instruments. Patents. New project with trapped ions. General CI not used so much anymore; now atmospheric pressure CI.

General Observations
75

Most significant paper ‘Bond Strengths of Ethylene and Acetylene.’ Writing papers vs. writing book on chemical ionization. Editor, board of directors of ASMS. Hundredth anniversary of mass spectrometry’s beginnings; Paper on early days of ion molecule reactions. Citation indices. International contributions to field. Current mass spec work more applied. Having trained many good mass spectrometrists a major contribution. Many foreign students. Canadian scientists ‘muzzled’ by government. Encouragement from mentors and wife. Mentoring and advising More women in science, especially environmental science. Changes to the field; future not predictable but not stagnant.

Index
98

About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his BS degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his MS in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.