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University of Toronto News, May 29, 1995

Closing the Circle

Posthumous designation "a blow against parochialism"

by Susan Bloch-Nevitte

The posthumous designation of professor emeritus for Leopold Infeld was a healing gesture. But it also became a reaffirmation of the University s international commitment. Infeld, a U of T faculty member in the late 1940s, had resigned following the Second World War when the University would not grant him a leave of absence to return to Poland.

This month, in the wake of VE day celebrations, the University rectified the situation. Members of Infeld's family were invited to U of T May 17 to accept his professor emeritus designation.

At a Faculty Club luncheon Professor Michael Marrus of the Department of History said the occasion marked a different and perhaps less honourable time just after the war. The climate throughout North America was one of intense anti-communism, characterized by "an utter lack of sympathy for the new regimes in eastern Europe and their challenge to rebuild their societies."

In the midst of that milieu Infeld had planned to take his leave. It was his personal commitment to a society and an educational system in need after the war s devastation.

But fear and distrust held sway in Canada of 1949-50, prompting government and media speculation that Infeld's plans could pose a security risk due to his alleged knowledge of nuclear bombs. (In fact, his field was relativity theory.) Unrelated departmental staffing issues conspired to delay his request. Infeld, who was already in Poland, resigned from U of T and began his work with the Polish academic community.

A little more than a year ago Chancellor Rose Wolfe brought the matter to the attention of Governing Council secretary Jack Dimond. He and Marrus spent considerable time scouring the University archives to find out more about U of T's role in the issue. Their findings suggested that while the University missed a critical opportunity 45 years ago to speak out on the principles of academic freedom on behalf of Infeld, it had an opportunity now to acknowledge that omission through the posthumous designation.

Forty-four years after Infeld left Canada and 26 years after his death, President Robert Prichard sent a letter to Infeld's son Eric, a professor at the Soltan Institute in Warsaw. He requested permission to designate Infeld professor emeritus, a distinction that would permanently recognize Infeld as an "honourable member of the academic and Canadian community."

Up to that point the Infeld family believed there was an important injustice waiting to be rectified. The letter, in Eric's view, crowned a 45-year "history of revision of official Canada's attitude toward my father." Marrus noted Infeld "was a person who felt justifiably aggrieved and there was a chapter that was unfinished. Ironically his international outlook was what we now acknowledge as central to our institutional mission. Our international agenda speaks of an institution not bound by parochial preoccupations. The story of Leopold Infeld and his legacy at U of T is a blow against parochialism."