Alex G. Harrison was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, one of two sons. His parents were farmers but had the Scottish appreciation for education. Harrison attended a one-room school, where his aunt was teacher. He won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario and decided to study chemistry. Harrison completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. Next, he went to McMaster University for a PhD. He worked on thyroid function and thyroxine in Harry Thode’s lab, getting a much-cited publication. The sulfur cycle introduced him to mass spectrometry. His postdoctoral applications of his PhD work, still in Thode’s lab, garnered him two more publications. He did a second postdoc on free radical mass spectrometry with Fred Lossing at National Research Council (NRC). He married during this time, and he took up skiing at Paul Kebarle’s urging.
Harrison’s first academic position was as lecturer at the University of Toronto, where he began research into ion molecule reactions. He earned tenure, taught, and became associate chair of the department. With funding from the NRC, Harrison was able to purchase a double-focusing mass spectrometer and set up a service lab. A chemical ionization (CI) mass spectrometer enabled him to analyze a broader array of compounds. Harrison became active in the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), serving on the board of directors. He organized a regional lab at McMaster. When he received the Izaak Walton Killam Research Fellowship he was able to dedicate two years solely to research; he began working on negative ion chemistry and produced another much-cited publication. Reactive collisions and fast atom bombardment (FAB) and peptides and b ions have occupied him since. Taking early retirement, Harrison was able to keep his lab and continue to work on b ions. He still maintains collaborations with Talat Yalcin, Bela Paizs, and Benjamin Bythell, and is still publishing. Harrison discusses international contributions to the field of mass spectrometry. He feels that current mass spec work is perhaps too much focused on development, rather than research. He believes that having trained many good mass spectrometrists is one of his major contributions. He credits his mentors for giving him encouragement and the freedom to explore; and he also praises his wife. He describes his own mentoring style. He celebrates that there are more women in science, especially environmental science. He considers mass spectrometry less competitive than other fields, and more collegial and cooperative. Though the field is radically changed from his early days, he believes that mass spectrometry has much still to provide to science, that its future is neither predictable nor stagnant.
Alex G. Harrison, interviewed by Michael A. Grayson in University of Toronto on November 13, 2013. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0905. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/jb39eu1.
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