Eli Franklin Burton (1879–1948) was C.L. Burton’s younger brother. His life was devoted to the study of physics and, in particular, colloids, a form of chemical mixture wherein microscopic particles are evenly distributed throughout a solution or aerosol. This arcane scientific pursuit led him down a rather wonderful path.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1901 with honours in mathematics and physics, Frank worked there for two years before winning an Exhibition Scholarship. This took him to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University where, from 1904 to 1906, he worked under J.J. Thomson, recent discoverer of the electron and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1906. Back in Toronto, he rejoined the U of T as a professor, where he continued to work for the rest of his life. He authored many monographs and books and, at one point, the college textbook on physics. In 1932, he became head of the university’s Physics Department.
A diabetic, Frank had a personal stake in the concept of an electron microscope, through which he was convinced submicroscopic particles could be viewed and studied. But in the 1930s, he was nearly alone in this interest. The idea of an electron microscope had been dismissed by most scientists around the world. Machines based on the principle were found to be unsatisfactory and the subject, according to H.L. Watson in his paper The Electron Microscope – A Personal Recollection, was considered a dead end. Frank remained keen, though, and carried on investigating the possibilities. After attending a conference on the subject in Berlin in the summer of 1935, he grew even more enthusiastic. That fall, he talked one of his graduate students, Cecil Hall, into building a series of test magnetic transmission microscopes under his supervision and managed, in the depths of the depression, to obtain for him an $800 stipend to cover both his equipment and living expenses. Frank later convinced two more grad students, James Hillier and Albert Prebus, to focus their area of research on refining the work Hall had begun.
By 1938, Frank was able to announce to the university that his team had succeeded in perfecting the electron microscope, something which could take “many photographs of submicroscopic structures up to a primary magnification of 30,000 times.”
This achievement remains unrivalled in the long history of the U of T’s Physics Department, and quite likely that of any other Canadian university. Says Watson: “Its invention quickly became a turning point for science itself. As appropriate specimen preparation techniques were developed, it became the means of relating morphology and function in controlled experiments, and the impressive modern developments, which we are all familiar with, in biology, medicine and material sciences became possible. For the first time, investigators were able to ‘see’ directly into ‘inner space,’ that realm of the very small, below the then-limit of the optical microscope, where most, if not all phenomena important in those fields find their explanation.”
Electron microscopes have had and continue to have a major impact on our society, in sciences across the board and medicine in particular. Frank Burton was honoured both during his lifetime and afterwards. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and received the Henry Marshall Tory Medal in 1947. He was also a member of the National Research Council of Canada from 1937 to 1946, and, during World War II, served on the board of Research Enterprises Ltd., a secret wartime radar research and training facility. For this latter activity, he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1943.
The Burton Medal, honouring distinguished contributions in the field from scientists under the age of 40, is given out annually by the Electron Microscopy Society of America. The E.F. Burton Fellowship at the U of T, established in 1956 by C.L. Burton, has to date financially supported over 335 graduate student recipients. The Burton Tower at the U of T also celebrates Frank Burton’s memory. One of the original microscopes is on display in its lobby. Another model of the microscope is housed in the Ontario Science Centre.
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