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Harris, Walter Edgar
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9 June 1915 - 20 October 2011
Walter Edgar Harris B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc. (Hon.) was a distinguished Analytical Chemist, respected Professor of Chemistry and expert adviser in the field of chemistry. He was a leader in the development of analytical chemistry education in Canada, and a key member of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Alberta. During Harris’ career he published over one hundred publications in scholarly journals along with seven books. Harris has been awarded various honours for his work including; the 1969 Fisher Scientific Lecture Award and the prestigious Member of the Order of Canada.
Walter Harris was born June 9, 1915 in Wetaskiwin, Alberta and raised on a farm in the nearby Gwynn Valley. Walter Harris had an older brother, Raymond, and two younger brothers, Jim and Gordon. During his early years his parents, Emma and Ernest, tried to instill within him the value of education. They sent him to Nashville School and Wetaskiwin High School from 1919 to 1934. A turning point came in his life when his grade ten teacher inspired him to pursue academics in university.
Walter Harris achieved his educational goal receiving an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in 1938 and Master of Science degree in 1939 from the University of Alberta.
Harris’ doctoral studies were completed at the University of Minnesota under the renowned analytical chemist I.M. Kolthoff. While researching his thesis on the polarography of uranium he was selected to work on the US Government Synthetic Rubber Program. This 1943 to 1946 project was a critical component of the war effort. Harris’ research component was to study the role of the mercaptans (thiols) in polymerization. For this work he developed an apparatus for amperometric titration that assisted in the analysis of small amounts of mercaptan. This apparatus measured the electrical currents produced by the point of a chemical reaction. Harris’ work in the program culminated in a paper, with I.M. Kolthoff on the use of amperometry for the determination of mercaptans in rubber formulations.
During his Ph.D he met his future wife Phyllis, a graduate student in the public health field. She was very supportive of his career and even edited much of his writing. They were married on June 14, 1942 and had two children, Margaret and Bill.
In 1946 Walter Harris joined the staff at the University of Alberta leading to a lifelong connection to the University. Harris’ first years focused on teaching, with heavy course loads and an overflow of post-war students. In the 1950’s additional professors were appointed to allow for more research opportunities across the department.
In 1957, Harris went on sabbatical to complete research in hot atom studies with radio bromine. This work was completed with the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories. His research lead to a significant portion of his life's work on programmed temperature gas chromatography, which is the use of gas to separate compounds for analysis. This work culminated in the book “Programmed Temperature Gas Chromatography” written with Harry Habgood.
When Harris returned to the University of Alberta, other North American Universities were closing or minimizing their analytical chemistry programs. Harris’ dedication to modernization made the program successful. He emphasized excellence in teaching and research practices, devoting time to perfecting experiments and lectures. Harris upheld conditions under which the highest standards could be achieved. Notably, his Chemistry 312 “Quantitative Analysis” course was influential to chemist graduates in the University of Alberta program, having taught them key research skills. Harris’ extraordinary efforts renewed the Analytical Chemistry program at the University of Alberta making it the best in Canada and among the best in North America.
Harris published over one hundred articles in scholarly journals and wrote seven books independently or collaboratively with colleagues. Throughout his career, Dr Harris was involved in a variety of research interests including: uranium, synthetic rubber, amperometric titrations, hot atom chemistry, gas chromatography, chemistry education, academic reviews, and application of scientific methods to health risk assessments of radiation, as well as chemical and environmental contaminants. One of his greatest undertakings in chemistry education was the second edition of “Chemical Analysis”, a fundamental work for Analytical Chemistry. Written with H Laitinen, this book took thirty-six months to complete and greatly advanced the profile of the Analytical Chemistry Department at the University of Alberta. Another contribution to chemistry education was the publication with Ron Kratochvil, “Chemical Analysis, An Intensive Introduction to Modern Analysis,” which was a laboratory textbook that helped to modernize the teaching of analytical chemistry.
Walter Harris’ served as the Chairman of the Department of Chemistry from 1974-1978. He focused on increasing faculty published research and tried to facilitate an open environment. Harris’ officially retired in 1980 but remained a continual presence at the University with the status of Professor Emeritus.
After retirement in 1980 Harris’ remained busy serving on several committees. He was the Chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Academic review for fourteen years. This body examined academic and administrative units on campus to make recommendations for improvements.
Harris worked for the Technical Advisory Committee from 1983 to 1997, which served as a consulting body on Nuclear Fuel Waste for the crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. He was also part of the Alberta Environment Hazardous Waste Management Committee advising the implementation of a hazardous waste treatment facility located in Swan Hills. Much of his hazardous waste work involved the assessment of toxicity risks, culminating in a book entitled “Risk Assessment.”
Harris received wide recognition for his accomplishments in both teaching and research. He was awarded the 1969 Fisher Scientific Lecture Award and the Chemical Education Award from the Chemical Institute of Canada. Harris was presented with the Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota and the University of Alberta’s Alumni Honour Award. He received an Honorary Fellowship in the Chemical Institute of Canada and the American Chemical Society, of which he was a longstanding member. He was awarded honorary degrees in science from the University of Waterloo and the University of Alberta. He also received the Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada as well as an Alberta Centennial Medal, and was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada.
Outside of his professional work Harris enjoyed golf, curling, and the card game of bridge, along with travel and long walks. Harris and his wife were supporters of Planned Parenthood Edmonton, an organization influential in changing the Canadian Criminal Code to decriminalize contraception. Throughout his lifetime he kept in contact with colleagues, friends and family including his granddaughters Martha and Glenna. Walter Harris’ family described him as “one of a kind,” as well as, “simple, winning and direct.”
Walter Harris passed away October 20, 2011. The WE Harris Teaching Workshop was established in 1976 and continues today as a legacy through an endowment in his honour. The annual workshop is held to facilitate discussion on teaching analytical chemistry, bringing together chemistry professors, lecturers, lab instructor and graduate students. Before passing away Harris set up the Walter and Phyllis Harris Graduate Scholarship in Analytical Chemistry. This was to assist graduate students and give back to the academic setting where he lived so much of his life. He will be remembered for his legacy in academic excellence, as well as his strong character and integrity.
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University of Alberta Archives