Volume 29 - Number 17 - Thursday, May 29, 1997

In Memoriam - Leo Yaffe: Researcher, Teacher, Administrator and Citizen

With the death of Leo Yaffe on May 14, McGill University has lost a highly respected professor emeritus, science has lost an outstanding nuclear chemist and Canada has lost a worthy and able citizen.

Leo Yaffe was born in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, in 1916, but in 1920 his family moved to Winnipeg. There he obtained his BSc in chemistry at the University of Manitoba in 1940, and an MSc in 1941. Two years later he was awarded a PhD at McGill.

In 1943 Yaffe was recruited by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) to undertake secret work at the Université de Montréal. However, he stated later, "We didn't work on the manufacture of bombs, but on the peaceful applications of atomic energy." The group included more than 200 respected scientists from Europe.

At the end of the war, the group moved to Chalk River, where for several years Yaffe directed research in nuclear chemistry. This resulted in several practical applications, including intense sources of cobalt-60 for the treatment of cancer, and radioactive tracers for medical diagnosis and research.

Yaffe remained with AECL until 1952, when he moved to Montreal as a lecturer in chemistry at McGill, where the J.S. Foster cyclotron had just been installed. Yaffe directed measurements of beta radiation, neutron- and proton-induced reactions, nuclear fission and isomer ratios--work which brought him worldwide acclaim. His career at McGill progressed rapidly, from associate professor in 1954 to Macdonald Professor of Chemistry in 1958.

In 1963 Yaffe obtained leave from McGill and moved to Vienna as director of research at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Later he confessed, "I spent most of my time acting as a mediator between the U.S. and the Soviet Union!" He returned to Montreal in 1965.

Leo Yaffe's period as head of the Department of Chemistry from 1965-72 is regarded as the "golden age" of chemistry at McGill. During these years the staff of the department doubled and the department granted almost a quarter of the PhDs awarded since the initiation of the doctorate degree in 1910.

In 1974 Yaffe was appointed vice-principal (administration) of McGill, a post he held until his retirement in 1981. This was a crucial period in which the University was engaged in "delicate and difficult" negotiations with the Quebec Ministry of Education, and Yaffe served on a number of advisory committees. During the summer of 1979 he acted as principal of the University.

Yaffe always regarded teaching as a pleasure and a priority, not simply as a necessary duty. Teaching, he said, gave him great satisfaction. "The transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next remains for me the most noble of the professions."

Among the many honours and awards bestowed on Dr. Yaffe were the Order of Canada in 1988 and the Prix du Québec in 1990.

Yaffe is survived by his wife, Betty, his daughter Carla Krasnick, a nurse in New Jersey, his son Dr. Mark Yaffe, a director of family medicine at St. Mary's Hospital in Montreal, and by three grandchildren, to all of whom we offer our sincere condolences. Leo Yaffe will be remembered with pride, affection and gratitude.

Montague Cohen
Department of Physics

URO Central

Front Page

Contact us

Back issues