Work of Nobel Prize-winner John Polanyi celebrated in U of T exhibit

May 30, 2024 by Faculty of Arts & Science Staff

The groundbreaking work of University Professor Emeritus John Polanyi, celebrated chemist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986, is the focus of a new permanent exhibit at the Lash Miller building, home of the department of chemistry in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

An older white man smiles at the camera from the corner of a display exhibit which read "A life beyond science."
University Professor Emeritus and Nobel laureate John Polanyi said he is "deeply humbled and grateful” for the new permanent exhibit, which honours his seminal research and his advocacy for responsible science (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Through still images, video and equipment, the dynamic exhibit tells the story of Polanyi's career including his seminal work in the field of reaction dynamics – a branch of chemistry that investigates what happens during chemical reactions.

A museum display including a replica of a gold medallion.
The centrepiece of the exhibit is a replica of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry medal awarded to Polanyi (photo by Diana Tyszko)

The display includes original equipment used in Polanyi’s early research, a reproduction of the lab notebook used by his graduate student to document their experiments and a video chronicling the process of discovery – along with a replica of his Nobel Prize medal.

"It’s been my good fortune to be surrounded by brilliant colleagues and other supporters throughout my life and career," Polanyi said. "I'm deeply humbled and grateful for this marvelous display and ongoing recognition of my life’s work.”

“John Polanyi holds a revered place in the history of the University of Toronto and his legacy is an inspiration for all of us,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “This installation is a compelling expression of his achievements. All those responsible deserve our thanks and congratulations.”

Polanyi came to U of T from Princeton University in 1956, and not long after, made his seminal discovery: his detection of infrared radiation released upon the collision of hydrogen and chloride molecules was the first observation of energy produced from the vibration of new molecules immediately after their formation.

His work went on to influence the development of advanced instrumentation in domains like pharmaceutical research, medicine and chemical manufacturing – including the development of the first chemical lasers.

“The university made a significant investment in me, a young scholar,” said Polanyi. “The environment and the resources I received enabled me to pursue a new and unknown direction in chemical physics.”

In 1974, he was named a University Professor – the highest academic honour bestowed by the university on its faculty members – and in 1994, the John C. Polanyi Chair in Chemistry was established.

In tandem with the new exhibit, the department of chemistry also recently renamed the research wing of the Lash Miller building in his honour.

“The John Polanyi research wing and this new display will serve to permanently highlight John's legacy for current and future young scholars,” said Professor Mark Lautens, chair of the department of chemistry. “John has brought great visibility and prestige to the University of Toronto through his groundbreaking studies and his contributions that go well beyond scientific discovery. We are equally grateful [for] and proud of his advocacy for science, for peace and for a better world.”

Inspiration for the exhibit came after Polanyi donated some of his equipment to the department of chemistry upon his retirement in 2020. A special celebration was held in his honour at Massey College in the fall of 2022, after which Professor Robert Batey, then department chair, with support from the Faculty of Arts & Science dean Melanie Woodin and the Offices of the President and the Vice-President, Research & Innovation, led the development of the exhibit to celebrate Polanyi’s impact and legacy.

“John has made tremendous contributions to the world of science as well as society at large through his advocacy for nuclear disarmament," said Batey. "We are proud to be able to celebrate his work this way in the place that has been his professional home for so many years.”

“This display is a fantastic tribute to Professor Polanyi's remarkable career as a scientist, a teacher and a global citizen,” said Woodin. “It is a fitting acknowledgement for someone who has engendered a network of excellence that stretches across countries and continents.”

A man, woman and two more men gather with linked arms in front of a museum display, smiling at the camera.
University Professor Emeritus John Polanyi (pictured second from the right) was joined in viewing the exhibit by (l to r) department of chemistry chair Mark Lautens, portrait painter Brenda Bury and former department chair Robert Batey (photo by Diana Tyszko)

The department of chemistry and Toronto-based communications and design firm Snack worked closely with Polanyi on the development of the display, drawing from his extensive archive of memorabilia and donated equipment.

The exhibit also captures Polanyi’s advocacy for the responsible use of science and a keen social conscieNote: nce that compelled him to campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons throughout his career. “A great university that invests in science must also strain to warn of the accompanying risks to humanity," he said.

Note: this article is reprinted from the original piece at Faculty of Arts & Sciences & UofT News.