Great Canadian Scientists – Top Ten Canadian Discoveries

by Barry Shell

Barry Shell is Research Communications Manager for Applied Sciences, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and a freelance science writer. Shell also created, which includes profiles of Canada’s top scientists, an Ask a Scientist section and other great activities/reference materials. He’s written three books, and freelances on CBC radio, as well as numerous magazines and newspapers including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times.

Here are his picks for the Top Ten Canadian Discoveries.

You can click on names below to view full profiles on

  1. Discovery of insulin for the treatment of diabetes: Frederick Banting and Charles Best of Toronto, 1922. Awarded the Nobel Prize, Medicine, 1923.
  2. Mapping the visual cortex of the brain. This means figuring out where in the cerebral cortex different vision processing tasks take place: things like: lines, brightness, contrast, edges, colour, motion and much more. David Hubel, FROM: Born 1926, Montreal , YEAR OF DISCOVERY all through the 60s and 70s at Harvard, where he still is. Worked with Torsten Wiesel who shared the prize. Won the Nobel Prize, Medicine, 1981.
  3. Development of site-based mutagenesis. A new way of creating mutations in living organisms. Plant and animal breeders rely on naturally occuring beneficial mutations that result in improved plants and animals. Smith found chemical techniques to create a specific mutation by precisely changing any particular part of the DNA in an organism. This has allowed countless researchers around the world to develop special bacteria, plants and animals with new desirable qualities or abilites that either do not occur naturally or that would take years and years of trial and error breeding to achieve. For instance, Smith became a multimillionaire by creating a special ‘designer yeast’ that produces human insulin. This is a much cheaper way to get insulin than by processing cow pancreas which was the old fashioned method. Michael Smith, Born Blackpool England 1932, Came to Vancouver in 1956 and has been here ever since. Won the Nobel Prize, Chemistry in 1993.
  4. Characterization of free radicals: A free radical is a very short-lived molecule that has an extra pair of electrons that it tries desperately to share with another molecule to form yet a third compound. These extra electrons make the free radical very reactive which means it will combine quickly, usually within a few millionths of a second with some other molecule. The fleeting nature of free radicals makes them very difficult to observe, yet they are crucial to understanding the mechanisms of countless chemical reactions. Gerhard Herzberg, Born Hamburg, 1904, Came to Canada 1935, headed Physics division of Canada’s National Research Council from 1949 – 1969 Won the Nobel Prize, Chemistry in 1971.
  5. Invention of the CCD chip for camcorders and telescopes (Hey!! From Nova Scotia!) The CCD or Charge Coupled Device is a microchip that takes light and converts it into digital data that can be manipulated by computers and electronics to form images. Most good camcorder and TV camera use CCDs to create the images that you see on television. Also every modern telescope in the world today has a CCD to capture the images. No self respecting astronomer looks through telescopes with their eyeballs anymore because CCDs are something like 100 to 1000 times more sensitive than a human retina. Willard Boyle, Born Amherst, NS, 1924. Did his work in the 60s and 70s in New Jersey at Bell Labs, then returned to Nova Scotia. He lives today in Wallace, NS.
  6. Development of computerized weather forcasting systems now used worldwide. These systems use complex mathematical models of the Earth’s atmosphere in three dimensions as well as time. They use data continuously provided by numerous orbiting satellites and thousands of Earth based stations. Roger Daley, Born in London, England, 1943, grew up in West Vancouver, BC, developed his theories in Montreal and Boulder Colorado, 1970s to 1990s.
  7. Development of the Ricker curve used worldwide to determine sustainable fisheries catches. The Ricker curve is a mathematical model of fish population dynamics that can be used to predict how many fish will survive depending on how many are caught. William Ricker, born Waterdown, ON, grew up in Vancouver, Nanaimo, B.C., developed his theories at the Fisheries Research Board of Canada in the in Ottawa and Nanaimo in the 1950s and 60s.
  8. Theory of plate tectonics — the notion that the earth’s crust is made up of a series of floating plates and when these plates shift or grind together we get earthquakes. John Tuzo Wilson, born 1908, Ottawa, ON, Theory of plate techtonics elucidated in the 1970s.
  9. Discovery of the t-cell receptor, a key to the understanding of the human immune system: Tak Wah Mak, Born China, 1946, grew up in Hong Kong, came to Canada in early 1970s, discovered T-cell receptor 1983 in Toronto.
  10. Ellucidation of the geometry of higher dimensions.
    Best way to understand this is to look halfway down the page at But in the meantime, we live in three dimensions, but math and geometry can go beyond this. The higher dimensions (eg the fourth dimension and up) are imaginary, but can still be very useful to comprehend such cosmological concepts as space-time and many complex systems such as computer and telephone networks, the genetic code and much more. Donald Coxeter of Toronto, Born London, England, 1907, came to Toronto 1937.

FYI: These choices are based on the rule that the person had to hold Canadian Citizenship when they did their greatest work. You can click here for more profiles of top scientists from Eastern Canada on

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