Elizabeth Rebecca Laird
By Mitchell Zimmer
In November, 1940, Western was selected by the National Research Council as one of the few Canadian universities to join in an intensive radar research program. The department converted itself into a laboratory to study the radiation and detection of centimetre wavelength waves. At first the Western research was focused on antenna radiation patterns.
That winter the tests on antenna patterns were carried out first by dragging equipment on a sled (borrowed from one of the professor's children) around the University campus, and then the transmissions from the Science Building were monitored in a cold, unheated, green shed, via a variety of antennas mounted on its roof.
Competent researchers were in very short supply when, in 1940, a gray-haired woman walked into the department, asking if she could be of some help. This was the department's introduction to Elizabeth Laird, one of the most remarkable individuals in the department's history to date. Dr. Laird was born in Owen Sound in 1874, and lived in various places throughout Ontario where her father, a Methodist minister, had charges. She completed secondary school at the London Collegiate Institute, and then attended the University of Toronto.
Dr.Laird was a brilliant student at the University of Toronto, her academic record shows that she had achieved the honor of being the first in her class for three years running. Despite this success, her scholarship applications were rejected on the basis of her gender, preventing her in continuing her graduate studies here in Canada.
After teaching for one year at the Ontario Ladies' College in Whitby, she won a scholarship for graduate studies at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. During her time there, she earned a fellowship to spend one year working with Max Planck in Berlin. Although women were not regularly admitted to Berlin University at the time of her fellowship (1898-99), Laird recalled that "there was no crowding in mathematics and physics, and I had no difficulty in getting permission from the different professors to attend their lectures." She returned to Bryn Mawr where she was awarded a Ph.D. in 1901 for her work on magnetism and spectroscopy.
Later that year, she joined the staff of the Physics Department at Mount Holyoke College, and two years later was named Professor and Head of the department. During her tenure, she developed a strong undergradaute program of national repute, however no graduate programs were available at Mount Holyoke to further the education of her students. During her summers and sabbatical leaves, Dr. Laird followed her research interests by working with some of the leading physicists of the day. She was the first woman to be granted the privilege of working in the Cavendish Laboratory with Dr. J.J. Thomson and had taken opportunities to work at Chicago, Wurtzburg and Yale. She "retired" for the first time to London in 1940.
Her offer of help for the radar project was quickly accepted, and she became an active member of the radar research team, working without remuneration (and taking her turn making measurements in the unheated 'green shed'). In 1945 her position in the department was formally recognized with an appointment as Honorary Professor. She continued an active research program, including the supervision of several MSc students on the biological effects of microwave radiation. At the occasion of her second retirement in 1953 at the age of 78, Dr. A.D. Misener stated that Dr.Laird was, "the rare combination of a conscientious and productive research worker and an inspiring and able teacher."