Alfred David Braine Woods: Father. Physicist. Traveller. Newfoundlander. Born July 16, 1932, in St. John’s; died April 3, 2019, in Toronto, of heart failure; aged 86.
“One of the keys to life is knowing how the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat.” David Woods was fond of repeating this to his three children. It’s not hard to understand the resonance this phrase had for someone who devoted his career to the study of elusive neutrons. And it became particularly meaningful in his later years, as he reflected on his life’s journey – one that included contributions to Nobel Prize-winning physics, to more than 90 scientific publications, an induction into the Royal Society of Canada and inclusion in Canada’s Who’s Who.
David was the third of six children born into a family with a long history and strong roots in Newfoundland. He demonstrated academic prowess at an early age, insisting on never turning the page he was studying until he understood every word. Always the top of his class, he was also a dedicated athlete. When his younger brother began excelling in cross-country running, David – after ensuring his studies were complete – trained late at night on the hilly streets of St. John’s. He won the next high-school race.
Dave first met Doreen McFatridge on a blind date at a high-school dance. He was nicknamed “Pops Woods” for his enthusiasm on the dance floor and Doreen was instantly charmed. They were henceforth inseparable. (David and Doreen would marry in Halifax in 1954, and their son, Brian, was born soon after.)
After graduating high school in 1949, David studied physics, first at Memorial University of Newfoundland, then obtained his BSc and MSc at Dalhousie University, and finally his doctorate from University of Toronto in 1957. A career as a research scientist was the perfect fit: He was happiest immersing himself in his lab and collaborating with colleagues.
In 1958, he joined Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and moved his family to Deep River, Ont. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth (Beth) and Nicola were born. While raising his children in the carefree Deep River wilderness, David worked happily at the Chalk River Labs. Scientists from all over the world visited, including Nobel laureate Bertram Brockhouse. David became Bert’s closest collaborator, studying lattice vibrations in alkali halide crystals.
David rarely spoke about his work or achievements, and frowned upon what he considered bragging. Even some of his colleagues didn’t know the extent of his accomplishments.
He loved games of tennis in the summer and downhill skiing in the winter. His family found his corny sense of humour embarrassing (he loved a good pun) and it took him forever to get to the point of a story. He was the epitome of the absent-minded academic, forever misplacing items and racing around the house in a last-minute search.
David’s career meant the family lived in the United Kingdom and France, year-long appointments that solidified David’s international reputation and sowed the seeds for his love of travel.
After retiring in 1989, David and Doreen moved to the south of Spain, where they had fallen in love with the culture. They would live with one foot in Canada and the other in either France or Spain for many years.
The last books on David’s nightstand were volumes I and II of A History of Baie St. George, about the corner of Newfoundland and Labrador where his mother-in-law grew up. Ever the proud Newfoundlander, he always dreamed of returning. He is now there in spirit.
Nicola Woods is David’s youngest daughter.
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