By JUDY STOFFMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, June 20, 2019
She was a great educator who believed every young person had potential and the right to fulfill it. Over four decades Margaret-Ann Armour inspired many a student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton with her dynamic chemistry classes and enthusiastic personality to change career paths. Young women under her tutelage who had not previously thought of themselves as scientists gained the confidence to follow her shining example and can now be found across the country employed in scientific and technical fields.
Convinced that an interest in science can be awakened at an early age, Prof. Armour loved to visit elementary schools where her chemistry demonstrations, involving Welch's grape juice, liquids that changed colour and dramatic puffs of smoke pouring from beakers, proved popular.
The handling of chemicals in labs used to be remarkably careless. When Prof. Armour lectured her PhD students on lab safety at the start of the academic year, she always recalled that as a chemistry student at the University of Edinburgh at the end of the 1950s, she and her fellow students rinsed their hands in benzene and played with mercury. Among her professional achievements, she identified a need for a guide to the safe disposal of laboratory waste and devised one with her undergraduate research assistants. According to Peter Mahaffy, professor of chemistry at the King's University in Edmonton, her disposal guide has been a bestseller for decades having gone through six editions, and is used in many academic labs.
In the 1980s and 90s, she also contributed articles, authored with other chemists, to scientific journals on ways of synthesizing organic chemicals and dealing with toxins.
Prof. Armour died May 25 at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton after a long illness. She was 79.
"She was marvellous," recalled Janet Austin, now Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, who regularly attended the Women's Retreat with Prof. Armour, an annual non-partisan event for women in leadership roles, started by Kim Campbell. "She had so much passion for her work and a belief in the capabilities of women."
Margaret-Ann Armour was born three days after the outbreak of the Second World War, on Sept. 6, 1939, in Glasgow, the only child of the former Annie Dunlop, a teacher, and Robert Armour. Accounts of her earliest years vary. She sometimes said that her father died in the war and she never knew him. Yet she gave her friend Cairine MacDonald, a former B.C.
deputy minister, to understand that her parents divorced in 1946, after the war, when she was seven years old. In any case, she was raised by a single mother, who gave her toy trains and building blocks to play with.
Her career path was set at the age of 5 while baking cookies with her mother (she remained an expert shortbread maker all her life). The little girl observed that inedible raw dough comes out of the oven edible. In a video that can be seen on the internet, she described the arousal of her curiosity about how substances change. She wanted to know what happened in the oven.
At 11, she wrote the then-mandatory "11-plus" exam that identified her as university material. She and her mother lived in the small paper-making town of Penicuik (pronounced Pennycook), where her mother had found a teaching job, and after obtaining her bachelor of science degree in chemistry at Edinburgh University, Margaret-Ann returned there to work for a paper mill, synthesizing better coatings for paper stock. This work was written up and eventually earned her a master's degree.
Canadian universities were advertising for grad students during this period and Margaret-Ann applied. The University of Alberta was the first to reply that she was accepted into the PhD program in organic chemistry. There she received her doctorate in 1970. She returned to Edinburgh for a postdoctoral fellowship but discovered that she missed Canada and accepted an offer to complete her postdoc at the University of Alberta's department of biochemistry.
She ran the undergraduate organic chemistry labs as research associate to an outstanding chemist, Satoru Masamune. When he was hired away by MIT in 1978, he urged her to come with him but she did not want to leave Alberta, where she had found a home. In 1979, she became one of only a handful of female professors in the hard sciences.
In 1982, Gordin Kaplan, then vicepresident of the university, observed with dismay that of the 150 attendees at a seminar on microprocessors, only one was female. He invited a select group of academics including Prof. Armour to find a strategy for increasing female participation in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). They formed what is now known as the WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology), a program to empower girls and women to seek qualifications in non-traditional areas.
It provides networking opportunities for women in sciences and technology and a summer research program for high-school girls.
This work gave a new focus to Prof. Armour's energies for the rest of her career. She was appointed the university's first associate dean of science for diversity in 2005, and oversaw the recruitment of 14 women out of 37 faculty positions in the sciences.
Slightly more than half of all first-year science students at Canadian universities are now women, an increase of nearly 30 per cent from two decades ago.
A strong Christian, Prof. Armour was the chair of the board of St. Stephen's College, which grants degrees in theology and counselling. In Edmonton, an elementary school was named after her and she was frequently there at graduation or special events greeting children and parents warmly. She received many honours, including the Order of Canada in 2006, the Montreal medal of the Chemical Institute of Canada and seven honorary degrees, including one from her first alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, which pleased her greatly. The last of her honorary degrees was conferred in her hospital room the day before her death.
She never married and although she leaves behind a host of friends, has no surviving family. "She said she was married to science," her friend Cairine MacDonald recalled, "and it was a happy marriage."
Identifying a need for and helping to devise a guide for the safe disposal of laboratory waste is one of Margaret-Ann Armour's many professional achievements. She also contributed articles, authored with other chemists, on ways of synthesizing organic chemicals and dealing with toxins.