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George Lindsey after enlisting in the Royal Canadian Artillery in 1942.
George Lindsey after enlisting in the Royal Canadian Artillery in 1942.

Nuclear physicist George Lindsey was DND's 'best mind' Add to ...

Few people recognize George Lindsey’s name because most of his work was top secret. For half a century, from Prime Ministers Louis St. Laurent through Brian Mulroney, from the DEW line to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the collapse of the Soviet Union– he was a key military strategist at the Department of National Defence. He was that rare breed: a theoretical scientist who could explain complicated ideas lucidly; and a civilian who commanded the respect of military personnel serving under him.

His specialty was aerospace defence, but rather than nuclear sabre rattling, he was interested in the dynamics of balanced deterrents in order to prevent a third world war. Canada with its NATO commitments was probably the most compatible place for a man of his training and temperament to work for we have the distinction of being one of the very few countries with the wherewithal to build an atomic bomb which has declined to show off its annihilation potential.

As the citation for Lindsey’s 1989 Order of Canada stated: “...he has a world-wide reputation as an authority on deterrence policy, arms control, nuclear weapons policy, naval welfare and strategic analysis...he has published extensively and is a sought-after speaker among defence scientists both in Canada and in NATO.

A “what if?” contrarian, a huge intellect, and a practical joker, Lindsey was an obsessive puzzler of problems both grand and mundane–from verification of weapons of mass destruction, to figuring out the fastest route from home to work, to devising ingenious ways to persuade squirrels to leap for food from suspended feeders. Sportswriter Alan Schwarz called Lindsey the Darwin of the Diamond for his painstaking compilation of baseball statistics. Forget box scores, Lindsey, who shared his baseball obsession with his father, recorded hugely detailed statistics over many seasons, in order to predict the optimum use of left or right handed hitters against pitchers with opposite handedness, to determine whether to bench a good hitter who was in a slump, and how to change the batting line up when the bases were loaded.

No matter the problem he always proceeded in the same way: collect the data, analyze the statistics, reach a solution and implement it. That’s because he had an empirical approach to life both at work and at home.

The son of a decorated soldier from the Great War, and himself a veteran of World War II, Lindsey was trained as a nuclear physicist. But he was wary of the life of an academic scientist with its concomitant concentration on grant applications and managing large teams of researchers. Military defence strategies, practical solutions and the wider world–from athletics to making art to engaging with the Chinese– fascinated him.

Ironically, he ended up at DND running the operational research and analysis establishment for two decades, a unique organization with about eight different divisions and at least 200 people reporting to him, one-quarter of whom were “uniform people” according to Ron Cleminson, a retired Wing Commander in the Air Force and a colleague in arms control and verification studies. Describing Lindsey “as the best mind” on strategic planning at the time in DND with both a wide and a deep grasp, Cleminson said: “He was honest, he was balanced and he was the kind of leader who influenced others to achieve the [desired]aim.”

Family

George Roy Lindsey was born in Toronto on June 2, 1920, the elder son of Lt. Col. Charles Bethune Lindsey and his wife Wanda Casmira (née Gzowski). His lineage reads like a Canadian history text beginning on his father’s side with his great-great grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, the Scottish born journalist and populist politician, who was elected Toronto’s first mayor in 1834, and later became a fugitive for his primary role in the Rebellion of 1837 in what was then Upper Canada.

Proudly framed in the Lindseys’ Ottawa living room is the Wanted poster issued on behalf of Queen Victoria and her agent, Lt. Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, offering a reward of one thousand pounds for Mackenzie’s capture. He evaded prosecution by fleeing to the United States, although some of the other rebels mentioned in the proclamation, including Samuel Lount, were hanged. Mackenzie re-settled in Toronto in 1850, after the offer of a general amnesty to the rebels.

Mackenzie had 14 children, including a daughter, Janet, who married British-born journalist and political activist Charles Lindsey, an early biographer of Mackenzie, and Isabel, who married lawyer John King and became the mother of William Lyon Mackenzie King, our tenth Prime Minister. Apparently on one of Mackenzie King’s secret trips across to England during the Second World War, he caused consternation amongst the ranks of the British Army Operational Research Group when he requested the presence of Lt. George Lindsey, then on secondment from the Royal Canadian Artillery to work on secret Allied radar research. Calm was restored when it was explained that the lowly Lindsey was the prime minister’s cousin.

On his mother’s side, he was a great grandson of Sir Casimir Gzowski, a Polish engineer and significant builder of bridges railroads and canals in Ontario. He was acting Lieutenant-Governor of the province from 1896 to 1897. Gzowski was a favourite of Queen Victoria, who gave him a portrait of herself in 1891, which now hangs in Lindsey’s study, the same room that houses a chair that once belonged to Her Majesty’s rebellious subject, William Lyon Mackenzie.

His father enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Nov. 9, 1914, served in France where he was awarded the DSO and Bar and attained the rank of Major. He volunteered again 25 years later when the Second World War erupted in 1939. He organized the first company of the Veterans Guard of Canada and was put in charge of a prisoner of war camp in northern Ontario. His business career as a stockbroker was not nearly as distinguished as his military one. He became heavily involved with the financier Sir Henry Pellatt and his disastrous real estate schemes, losing much of the family capital in the 1920s. Fortunately the family home was in his wife’s name and she had a private income.

The two distinguished sides of Lindsey’s pedigree sometimes warred. For example, Norman Bethune was his second cousin once removed on his father’s side. The family wouldn’t let George meet Bethune because he was a Communist and they feared it might be catching, like a virus.

Education and Military Service

George Lindsey and his younger brother Casimir, now a distinguished zoologist and painter in Vancouver, went to the University of Toronto Schools, an academically elite boys school. George excelled at sports and academics, graduating in 1938 with the Governor General’s medal and a congratulatory handshake from His Excellency, the novelist John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir.

From UTS he went to Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he studied math and physics, ranking amongst the top students in his class. After graduation in 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery and was quickly siphoned off to learn about radar before being sent overseas. Radar, which was then a secretive military weapon, made it possible to track incoming enemy torpedoes and aircraft. It is widely believed that radar helped Britain survive the Blitz in 1940.

By 1943, Lindsey had been seconded to the British Army Operational Research Group under the leadership of Omond Solandt, a Canadian physiologist and military strategist. He was stationed mainly on the south coast using radar to improve the tracking and shooting down of German V-1 flying bombs. (Later he wrote, Perspectives in Science and Technology: The Legacy of Omond Solandt, because he thought his leader and mentor hadn’t received the recognition he was due.)

After Lindsey was demobilized with the rank of Captain in 1945, he did a Master’s degree at Queen’s University in Kingston in nuclear physics, and then won an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. When he wasn’t working on his Ph.D. at the Cavendish Laboratories, he played goalie for the university hockey team–Alistair Horne, the journalist and historian (who had learned to skate when he was evacuated to the U.S. during the war) was a teammate. Spotted by a scout for the Scottish national team, Lindsey was offered a place, but declined, declined knowing the statistics were gloomy for a career as a professional hockey player.

Marriage and Career

At the Cavendish Labs he met June Broomhead, a graduate of Newnham College, who was working on her PH.D in x-ray crystallography. “All the different disciplines came together at tea-time,” she said, which led not only to her own romance, but produced a “lot of the great ideas” that netted some of the Cavendish scientists, including Francis Crick of DNA fame, the Nobel Prize.

When asked what appealed to her about George Lindsey, she said: “You felt that he was a straight, completely honest man.” He was “very bright, but he kept it hidden,” had a “clever sense of humour” and “could turn his hand to anything.” After each of them had earned their doctorates and “inspected” the other’s family, they were married in England on August 20, 1951.

By then, Lindsey had returned to Canada to work for his old boss Omond Solandt, who was head of post war military research and the founding chair of the Defence Research Board in Ottawa. When his bride arrived in Ottawa that November, she asked with chagrin, “What have I done?” and quickly set about applying for a post-doctoral fellowship. She worked on her own research until their children were born, a son Robin, now an economist at the Sauder School at the University of British Columbia, and a daughter Jane, a biostatistician in AIDS Research at the Harvard School of Public Health. “I was pre-women’s lib and of the attitude that if you had children you brought them up,” she said about curtailing her own career to be a stay at home mother.

As for her husband, she said he had a very high IQ, “but it was zero in the kitchen,” although she did allow that he could “repair anything.” Her son Robin had a more tactful description of the way his parents inter-acted, saying his father was the strategist and his mother the tactician of the household. Nobody understands the intricacies of other people’s relationships, but to casual observers the Lindseys happily bickered for more than 60 years.

The family moved to Italy when he was stationed in Carrara, Italy on a NATO mission studying anti-submarine warfare in 1961-64. Always busy, always curious, he took up sculpting in his spare time, taking lessons from the son of artist Norman Rockwell. Of course, he wasn’t going to be content with reducing a 150 pound chunk of marble into a 55 pound bust of his wife. Drawing on both his military heritage and the local mythology about St. George vanquishing the dragon, Lindsey, typically, turned the legend inside out. In his scenario the victorious dragon is chomping on his victim’s thigh bone and has his triumphant paw on the saint’s shield. After the Lindseys returned to Canada, he continued to sculpt, but he switched to soapstone, creating a crest of the National Defence College, the Centennial symbol and book ends, among other works.

In 1970, the same year as two separate FLQ cells kidnapped British trade envoy James Cross and murdered Quebec Cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, the Lindseys were sent to Quebec City so he could take intensive languages courses in French. Stuck in a class singing songs and practising verbs with other anglophones, Lindsey quickly grew bored. Instead of immersion, he insisted he had learned French in a submersible, while working with French scientists on anti-submarine warfare in the 1960s.

He quit the group French and joined a francophone seminar taught by political scientist Albert Legault at nearby Laval University. By the end of the year he was so involved with the class that he ended up publishing a book with Legault titled The Dynamics of the Nuclear Balance in English and Le Feu Nucléaire in French. It is now considered a classic.

Retirement

Retirement was just a word for a man with as many interests as Lindsey. He taught himself to type and use a computer after he left DND in 1987 and used his experience in weapons and arms control to write lectures, sit on panels and deliver papers about nuclear disarmament until well into his mid-80s.

Several years ago he had a blackout at home, just as his wife called him to dinner. “Red or white,” she heard him shout, followed by a thud. By the time, she reached the living room, he was back on his feet, and repeating the wine options--he had been making his own wine for decades--as though nothing had happened. A couple of years later, his memory faltering, he blacked out while driving the car and crashed into a tree.

Doctors installed a pacemaker, but his dementia progressed and he was also diagnosed with metastasized prostate cancer. Eventually, he was moved into a residential care facility, while the Lindseys waited for a place to become available in the Perley Rideau Veterans Hospital. That’s where Lindsey, the man who helped maintain the equilibrium among the world’s nuclear arsenals, quietly died, at 91, on Sept. 6, 2011, two weeks after celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary.

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