Arthur Smith was a Canadian scientist who worked with the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and shared in the recognition when the agency was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for its efforts “to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.” Mr. Smith, who died in Knowlton, Que., on Aug. 23 at the age of 90, became an expert in the nuclear fuel cycle, from finding where uranium could be mined to storing the radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission. Mr. Smith was a pacifist all his life.
As a young man, he never planned to work in such a specialized area; he could well have ended up as a photographer since he trained at the hand of a master, Malak Karsh.
Arthur Young Smith was born on Sept. 4, 1929, in Detroit, where his Canadian father, also Arthur Smith, was working as a designer for Pontiac. The family moved back to Ottawa when Arthur was a year-and-a-half old. He attended local schools then went to Ottawa Tech and Carleton College (now Carleton University). By then, his father was working as a designer in the marketing department of E.B. Eddy, the paper mill, where he designed the logo for White Swan toilet paper.
Through his father’s connections in the photography world, young Arthur got a job as an assistant to Mr. Karsh, the famous Ottawa photographer. Arthur set up the camera and worked in the darkroom. “At a very young age, [Arthur] was exposed to a high level of photography,” his son, Robin Smith, said. At one point, Mr. Karsh ordered Arthur to stop an Ottawa streetcar to get a shot of it.
While he was at Carleton, he took a summer job with the Geological Survey of Canada. His photography experience helped as he worked taking aerial photographs of western and northern Canada, an area that had never been catalogued from the air. It was the early 1950s and he flew in war surplus planes, a converted Lancaster bomber and a Canso, an amphibious aircraft that could land on an airfield or water if it had to.
One of the areas he and his team photographed was Fort McMurray, long before the oil boom. When he retired, Mr. Smith contacted officials in Fort McMurray and told them, “I have 150 photographs from the 1950s. Are you interested?” They were, and the photos are in the local archives.
Another objective of the overflights was to gather geological information using magnetic sensors. Mr. Smith decided to study geology and earned a degree at McGill University. At McGill, he met Mariette Hayeur, a francophone. “My mother didn’t speak English until she was 19,” her daughter, Michelle Smith, said. “At home, my mother spoke French to us; my father spoke English.” Back in 1958, there was a small problem. A priest refused to marry them in a church because Mr. Smith was not Catholic. They were married in a chapel next to the church.
Shortly afterwards he started working again for the Geological Survey of Canada in Bathurst, N.B. Mr. Smith and his colleagues recorded high levels of lead in the Nepisiguit River. Doctors had been mystified by levels of lead poisoning, especially in children, in whom it sometimes caused deafness. Mr. Smith and his team found that people had been dumping car and truck batteries into the river, and the lead leaching from the batteries was poisoning the water supply. Once identified, habits changed, and lead levels fell into the safe range.
Around this time, at the height of the Korean War, he received a draft notice from the U.S. Army, since he had been born in Detroit. He renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid military service.
Every summer, Mr. Smith worked on geological surveys in northern Canada and the Arctic. During this time, he worked on finding uranium deposits by studying the geology of an area. He became so interested that he went to Queen’s University for a master’s degree in geochemistry. He also worked on a PhD at Carleton University but left to work full-time for the Geological Survey of Canada. Then he started a life of travelling the world with his family, first on loan to Uganda as part of a Commonwealth aid program. “It was quite a trip. Two children in cloth diapers flying to London, Tripoli then Entebbe in Uganda,” Robin Smith said.
After he worked in Uganda for three years, the country was suddenly in turmoil under president Milton Obote. “We went to Kenya, and I remember my father was worried we wouldn’t get out alive,” Michelle Smith said. “We left Kenya on the last boat to get through the Suez Canal before it was closed by the Six-Day War.”
Mr. Smith was posted to many countries, almost always moving with his family. His time with IAEA began in 1971, when he started work on a geological map of northern Greece, also concentrating on uranium exploration. After seven years in Greece, a tense political period, the Smith family moved to Peru. The military government in Peru seized the agency’s Toyota Land Cruisers, with UN symbols printed on them, and repurposed them for the military.
Mr. Smith moved to the IAEA headquarters in Vienna in 1978 and worked there for more than a decade until his retirement. In April, 1986, the Soviet government covered up the explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, though Sweden and Finland were reporting high levels of radioactivity. Mr. Smith found it in his own backyard in Vienna.
“It had rained, and my father used a Geiger counter and other equipment to monitor radiation in the grass,” Robin remembers. “Even my shoes were radioactive. My father went to the office and spent 14 hours a day dealing with the Chernobyl crisis.”
One of his last assignments at the IAEA was hosting a global conference on uranium geochemistry in 1987. He retired in 1989, at 60, the mandatory age at the United Nations.
In retirement, he bought a 71-acre farm in Fulford in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. He was active in local conservation groups and fought a frustrating battle on the issue of algae in Brome Lake. A scientist with a knowledge of the cause of the annual algae blooms, he failed to convince his fellow conservationists and the town that the issue was septic tanks by the shore leaching phosphorus into the lake and feeding the algae bloom.
Mr. Smith was predeceased by his wife in 1998. He leaves his children, Robin and Michelle, and three grandchildren.