Wilfrid Bennett Lewis

Wilfrid Bennett Lewis, physicist, chief scientist for 26 years of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (b at London, Eng 24 June 1908; d at Deep River, Ont 19 Jan 1987). Lewis trained under Lord RUTHERFORD and worked in atomic physics throughout the 1930s.

Lewis, Wilfrid Bennett

Wilfrid Bennett Lewis, physicist, chief scientist for 26 years of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (b at London, Eng 24 June 1908; d at Deep River, Ont 19 Jan 1987). Lewis trained under Lord RUTHERFORD and worked in atomic physics throughout the 1930s. Like most of his Cambridge colleagues, he worked on radar during WWII, becoming in 1945 superintendent of the main British airborne radar laboratory. His prewar colleague J.D. Cockcroft, earlier superintendent of army radar, was in 1944-45 scientific director of the Canadian-Anglo-French atomic project.

Unexpectedly the British government ordered Cockcroft's return, to refound atomic research in Britain. The existence of the Canadian project hung in the balance, since the Canadian government was unwilling to continue it unless a qualified research director could be found. Lewis's name was eventually suggested. He came to Canada in 1946 as director of the Atomic Energy Division of the NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL and served as the government's chief nuclear scientist until retirement in 1973 as senior VP (science) of ATOMIC ENERGY OF CANADA LTD.

Lewis's career had 2 main facets, scientific and political. When he came to Canada, the ZEEP reactor was already in operation and the NRX reactor under construction (completed 1947). Lewis had to find staff and orchestrate their work into an efficient research program, deal with unforeseen problems (notably the NRX accident of 1952), and at the same time plan ahead for new reactors appropriate to new investigations. By 1949 he decided in principle on a large heavy-water reactor, the specialty of the original wartime Canadian project, that could use Canadian-produced uranium fuel, supply especially high quantities of neutrons for research, and produce plutonium that could be sold to defray costs. This was the NRU reactor, completed in 1957. Its success led to the CANDU reactor program of the 1970s, to generate electricity at competitive rates. Other ventures under Lewis's direction ranged from the Theratron machine for medical radiation to the 1966 proposal to build an Intense Neutron Generator, vetoed by the government as being far too expensive.

Until the late 1950s, Canada was the only "atomic power" in the world dedicated to exclusively nonmilitary uses of nuclear technology. Thus, when the first "Atoms for Peace" conference was held at Geneva (1955), Canada was in a unique political position, especially attractive to the "unaligned" countries that wanted to develop scientifically without joining the American or Russian camps, such as India and Pakistan, both of which later built Canadian-designed research reactors. Lewis led the Canadian delegation at this and subsequent UN conferences until 1971 and exercised considerable influence. He received numerous honours and awards for his scientific and diplomatic work, including the Atoms for Peace Award in 1967, worth $50 000, which he donated to McGill to buy scientific apparatus.