University of Toronto celebrates career of Nobel Prize-winning Professor Emeritus John C. Polanyi

November 17, 2022 by A&S News

On Nov. 3, the Faculty of Arts & Science hosted a special evening celebrating the illustrious career of University of Toronto Professor Emeritus John C. Polanyi, world-renowned scientist and Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry.

Held at Massey College, an elated feeling of joy and admiration filled the room full of distinguished guests and esteemed colleagues, including past and present University presidents, chancellors, government officials, and other close friends and family.

Throughout the evening, several remarks were made honouring Polanyi and his significant contribution to the University and the world at large through his research, as well as his advocacy for nuclear disarmament. University President Meric Gertler, Chancellor Rose Patten, and Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin all spoke about Polanyi’s remarkable career and life accomplishments. Professor Rob Batey, chair of the Department of Chemistry, acted as master of ceremonies for the evening.

Melanie Woodin, John Polanyi and Meric Gertler.
Melanie Woodin, dean, Faculty of Arts & Science; University Professor Emeritus John Polanyi; and Meric Gertler, president, University of Toronto.

John Polanyi also spoke at the event, reflecting on his career and his advocacy for a nuclear-free world. His remarks were subsequently repurposed into an opinion piece that ran in the Globe & Mail on Nov. 5 entitled "We have to believe in a world without war — and science should lead the way."

Watch Professor Polanyi’s Remarks


Excerpts from the speaking remarks from the notable guests can be read below.

President Meric Gertler

"John Polanyi’s contributions to science, and to society more broadly, have been far-reaching and profound. His work in the field of chemical-reaction dynamics and chemi-luminescence has been recognized with the Nobel Prize, the Wolf Prize, a Royal Medal, the Herzberg Gold Medal, the Faraday Lectureship Prize, and many other honours.

As a tribute to John’s achievement, the Government of Ontario created the John Charles Polanyi Prizes, which are awarded annually to emerging researchers in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics and literature.

The federal government also got into the act, creating NSERC’s John C. Polanyi Award, which recognizes recent outstanding advancements in any NSERC-supported field of the natural sciences or engineering.

John’s achievements in science are matched by his passionate work for global peace and nuclear disarmament. As you know, John is a persistent and articulate proponent of a world free of nuclear weapons. John leads by example, believing that scientists have a responsibility to protect our world, to promote collaboration, and to work for international peace, prosperity and justice. 

Just this past year, John was recognized with the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society. The prize celebrates “outstanding leadership and achievements of scientists in upholding human rights”. John, with typical humility, insists that he has been doing only what every scientist should do. 

John has graciously donated some of his research equipment to U of T, and we are commissioning a permanent installation in the Department of Chemistry as a tribute to his remarkable career. 

This project is a special collaboration between the President’s Office, the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives, the Faculty of Arts & Science, and the Department of Chemistry. It is planned to be installed by Spring of 2023.

John, thank you for all you have done — and continue to do — for the University of Toronto, for Canada, and for humankind. It is deeply appreciated!"

Chancellor Rose Patten

"As we have heard this evening, John Polanyi is among the finest, most influential, and most celebrated scholars and teachers ever to have been associated with this great institution. 

But in addition, his record of moral and intellectual leadership is profoundly inspiring. 

He has always believed that scientists should not stay safely within an ivory tower. They must engage in public affairs. And they must help the world to wrestle with the powers that science has unlocked.

In carrying out this public service and responsibility, Professor Polanyi has led by example. He has been an outspoken champion for peace and nuclear disarmament, justice and human rights since the 1950s. 

As I have been listening to the speakers this evening — especially to Professor Polanyi himself — I have been thinking about our students. What an opportunity they have had, to listen to and learn from such an extraordinary scholar.

But more than that, Professor Polanyi exemplifies the kind of excellence we seek to foster in our students — excellence, not only in their specific disciplines, but also in their personal character, integrity, and leadership capabilities. 

Our students could have no finer model than you, Professor Polanyi. Thank you for your extraordinary contributions to the University of Toronto, to Canada, and to the world."

Dean Melanie Woodin

"A brilliant mind and educator, John’s impact on the Faculty of Arts & Science, our students and the Department of Chemistry has been nothing short of profound. 

For students he was a wise and thoughtful mentor, patient teacher and remarkable visionary. 

For faculty and colleagues, he was an influential leader, a passionate researcher and scientist, and an esteemed collaborator. 

As a fellow scientist, I have always been inspired by John’s fascinating work and his tireless dedication to discovery.

John began his career at U of T in 1956 as a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. In 1974, he was the first in chemistry to be awarded the honourary title of University Professor, a distinction given to only two per cent of U of T’s faculty at a time. He was awarded the inaugural position of the ‘"John C. Polanyi Chair in Chemistry" in 1994, which he held until he retired last year, when he became a Professor Emeritus.

We’ve been so fortunate to have John as a member of the Arts & Science faculty and research community for so many years. His groundbreaking research program has produced critically important discoveries in molecular chemistry that have helped make significant advancements in the fields of medicine and tech.

And even today, after multiple decades and dozens of prizes and accolades, John continues to make vital contributions to science. Just last year, his research led to a whole new field of chemistry called knock-on chemistry, which has challenged a century-old scientific model of chemical reaction.

We’re incredible grateful for John’s invaluable contribution to the Faculty of Arts & Science and the University. His genius and international prestige helped cement the University’s reputation as a world-class educational institution and built the chemistry department to a level of excellence matched by few others. 

And it’s John’s inherent passion and unwavering love of science and chemistry that have been instrumental in creating a kinetic sense of community on campus, inspiring countless students, researchers and faculty, with many traveling from all corners of the world for the privilege of working with or studying underneath him.

Although John has officially retired from his post at U of T, he leaves behind an enduring legacy that has solidified him in our history books. His work will be studied for years to come, his tenacity and spirit admired, and his benevolence and grace emulated. 

Thank you, John, for your relentless commitment and devotion to your field.

You have had an indelible impact on the Faculty, the University and our scientific community, and it's been an honour to work alongside you for so many years."

Professor Rob Batey

"We’ve all gathered here to honour the remarkable achievements of John Polanyi, who, over the course of his distinguished career spanning more than five decades, has made immense contributions to the world of science and, in effect, society at large through his revolutionary research in the field of chemistry, specifically chemical-reaction dynamics. 

I’ve always admired John for his intellect, his discerning nature, and the ardent fervor and passion he has for his work. 

From discovering scientific breakthroughs in his research lab, to his keen social conscience that has compelled him to stand up for denuclearization, John is a luminary whose impact on the world and U of T’s scientific community is immeasurable.

John, we have wanted to do this, and to officially celebrate you for some time now. On behalf of our department, and your colleagues and friends here tonight, we’re so thrilled to finally be able to honour you."

Celebrating Professor Emeritus John C. Polanyi

J. Robert S. Prichard, John Polanyi, Ann E. Wilson, and Robert Batey.
From left: J. Robert S. Prichard, former U of T president; John Polanyi; Ann E. Wilson; and Robert Batey, chair, Department of Chemistry. 
The Honourable Dr. Vivienne Poy; Neville Poy; Rose Patten, The Honourable Frank Iacobucc; Nancy Iacobucci, and Janice Stein. 
From left: The Honourable Dr. Vivienne Poy; Neville Poy; Rose Patten, chancellor; Nancy Iacobucci; The Honourable Frank Iacobucci; and Janice Stein. 
Carolyn Bennett, Brenda Bury, and John Polanyi.
From left: The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Brenda Bury, and John Polanyi.
John Polanyi; Brenda Bury; Nita Batey; and Robert Batey.
From left: John Polanyi; Brenda Bury; Nita Batey; and Robert Batey, chair, Department of Chemistry.