McGill LibraryMcLennan Library Building
3459 rue McTavish
Robert Van Vliet Nicholls Fonds
6.3 m of textual records.
Robert Nicholls was born in Montréal on February 18th, 1913. He was educated at McGill University, obtaining his B.A. in 1933, M.Sc. in 1935, and Ph.D. in chemistry in 1936. He also undertook post-doctoral work at Cornell University, the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and Cambridge University in his area of specialization, high polymers. He was appointed Lecturer in chemistry at McGill in 1937 and Assistant Professor in 1940. During the Second World War, Nicholls was part of a group of researchers at McGill charged with developing explosives, notably RDX. From 1946 until his retirement, Nicholls was Associate Professor of chemistry, as well as serving as Associate Dean and Secretary of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. Nicholls is also an authority on the history of science; he collected and catalogued the Chemistry Department's library of historic works on chemistry. For his work in establishing the Canadian Railroad Museum, he was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 and received an Award of Merit from the Canadian Railroad Historical Association in 1990. Nicholls married Mable E. Miner in 1945 and had two daughters. He passed away in 2007.
Fonds consists of papers (originals and printed materials) that are largely the products of Nicholls research work; there are also some materials from his student years, and some files related to his teaching and administrative activities.
Student materials consist of notes for undergraduate and graduate courses (1931-1936) and of lectures attended during post-doctoral study at Brooklyn and Cambridge. Teaching files contain examinations and quizzes for courses taught by Nicholls (1936-1973), lecture notes for his course in organic chemistry (1952-1955), laboratory manuals, and correspondence with the Québec Ministry of Education regarding marking of High School Leaving Examinations in chemistry (1940-1949). Administrative responsibilities are documented by files of memoranda and minutes, on the business of Graduate Faculty (1960-1971), the Scholarships Committee (1967-1969), the Museums Committee (1965) and Civil Defence (1951).
Approximately half the records concern research, largely in two fields: war research, and the history of science. War research is covered by correspondence (1939-1951) with Otto Maass and other officers of the National Research Council, the Defence Department, private industry, and fellow chemists, such as Russell Smart, largely on RDX and chemical warfare. Chemical warfare is also the subject of some reading and lecture notes (1942). Drafts and published reports of Nicholls' research on RDX are supplemented by copies of other NRC and Defence Department reports on explosives research, mustard gas, and the work of the NRC Polymer Subcommittee (1942-1944). Nicholls' involvement with the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science is reflected in files of minutes, reports and correspondence (1974-1977). There are also completed questionnaires and correspondence concerning the survey of historical scientific instruments conducted by the Association on behalf of the Union internationale d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences. Files of correspondence with the Humanities Research Council largely deal with assessing grant applications for history of science projects. Other research materials include notes for a bibliography on plastics, soaps and synthetics, and a file of reading notes and correspondence with antiquarian booksellers regarding the history of espionage (ca 1930-1955). Nicholls' interest in the history of science at McGill is reflected in 1.8 m of notes and photocopies of material on individuals, faculties, and science buildings.
The Archives and Documentation Center of the Canadian Railway Museum also has a fonds on Robert Van Vliet Nicholls (P015). It consists of 10 meters of textual records, about 500 photographs and 300 postal cards.