MacRae, Donald Alexander

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Don MacRae was born in Halifax, and educated in Toronto. He graduated from the University of Toronto in Mathematics and Physics in 1937 (BSc), and obtained his AM and Ph.D. from Harvard in 1940 and 1943 respectively. He worked briefly at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and in industry before taking a faculty position at the Case Institute of Technology in 1946. In 1953, he accepted a position at the University of Toronto, becoming Head of the Department of Astronomy and Director of the David Dunlap Observatory in 1965, and serving in these positions for 13 years. During this time, the Department grew in both size (partly as a result of the establishment of the Scarborough and Mississauga Campuses), and in diversity, as departmental interests expanded into extragalactic astronomy, radio astronomy, and theoretical astrophysics. Graduate enrollment and curriculum also expanded greatly. Under Don's direction, the Department established a small but very productive observatory in Chile — the University of Toronto Southern Observatory.

Don's research was in the areas of galactic structure and stellar spectroscopy, but his most important contributions were in leading Toronto astronomy in new directions. He was one of the first to use the University's mainframe computers, and to teach computer programming (in machine language!) to students. His interest in radio astronomy, developed during the 1940's, led to the construction of several radio telescopes, to the training of several graduate students in radio astronomy, and to the establishment of a partnership with the Department of Electrical Engineering which stimulated the development of Long-Baseline Interferometry, and the award of the Rumford Medal to the team that developed it. He published papers on lunar geology, a topic of great scientific and public interest at the time, but not a “mainstream” astronomical topic, and served on and chaired the Board of the Universities Space Research Association, which promoted cooperation between NASA and universities.

Don also made important contributions to Canadian astronomy, by supporting the establishment of national facilities -- the Algonquin Radio Observatory in the 1960's, and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in the 1970's. He served on and chaired the Board of the latter facility in 1973. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Don had a genial personality, and was a committed, creative, and effective teacher, from the introductory to the graduate level. His best-known contribution to public education was as the “star” of the Oscar-nominated film Universe, produced in 1960 by the National Film Board of Canada. His efforts, and those of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, led to the establishment of the McLaughlin Planetarium, one of the world's foremost planetariums until it closed in 1995.


The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics maintains a list of links to articles about Don MacRae: