Donald Sprung remembered as an extraordinary physicist, teacher, mentor

a circular headshot of Donald Sprung alongside text that reads: A celebration of Life for Donald Sprung, April 15

A celebration of Life for Donald Sprung will be held on campus on Saturday April 15. Flags will be lowered starting Friday in memory of the former dean of science, fondly remembered for his passion for teaching, research and mentorship.

A Celebration of Life for Donald Sprung will be held at Alumni Memorial Hall on Saturday, April 15, from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Sprung, who served as Dean of the Faculty of Science from 1975 to 1984 and Chair of the physics department from 1991 to 1997, passed away on March 7 in his 89th year.

Flags at McMaster will be lowered in his honour on Friday, April 14, and will remain lowered through the weekend.

An encyclopedic phsycist

Sprung was born on June 6, 1934, in Kitchener, the oldest of six children to Lyall and Doreene Sprung.

He grew up in Kitchener, where he attended Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate. He obtained a BA in mathematics and physics from the University of Toronto, winning the Lieutenant-Governor’s Silver Medal for the best BA degree in Victoria College.

Sprung and his wife, Hannah, met at the University of Toronto and were married on December 12, 1958 in England, where he was continuing his studies at the University of Birmingham. Their daughter Anne was born in Birmingham in November 1959.

In 1961, after Sprung completed his PhD in mathematical physics with Gerald Brown and Sir Rudolf Peierls, the family returned to North America, where he completed a postdoctoral year at Cornell with Hans A. Bethe.

He joined McMaster in 1962. Their second child, Carol, was born in Hamilton in September 1963.

In 1997 he was awarded a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Birmingham based on his extensive publications in the field of nuclear structure theory.

His notable honours include the Herzberg Medal of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) in 1972, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada in 1980, and the CAP Gold Medal for Achievement in Physics, in 1997. He was also a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics (London).

Sprung made a significant contribution to numerous areas of physics, starting with nuclear physics, before working in Bohmian quantum mechanics, and then shifting his interests toward solid state physics and photonic crystals.

He was a truly encyclopaedic physicist, and had an outstanding international reputation. His publications included almost 250 articles, many of which were cited more than 100 times.

A teacher, a mentor and a friend

Sprung was also widely regarded as an excellent teacher, who was always willing to dedicate time and energy to his students, even when he was incredibly busy with other responsibilities. He was patient and attentive as a mentor and gave some of the most memorable lectures his students ever attended.

Sprung also took great pride in promoting his research associates and his students. Many of them are following successful careers in academia, while others have moved into industry and financial analysis.

He will be deeply missed by his friends, colleagues, and students, and by the world scientific community.

Sprung’s keen intelligence and determination was obvious in everything he undertook. He could do anything he set his mind to, including becoming a track and field champion in high school and completing a course in woodworking in order to build many of the cabinets and bookcases in the family home in Dundas. His passion was his scientific research, often pursued in the evenings and on the weekends due to his busy administrative duties at the university.

After he retired in 1997, he continued his research and teaching at McMaster as Professor Emeritus. He was also active in the community, serving as a member and as chair of the McMaster Community Homes board for many years.

Sprung enjoyed being a general handyman, fixing and renovating not only the family home, but also his daughters’ homes. He was fond of bargain-hunting at garage sales, and often gifted his children and grandchildren with his finds.

Sprung’s Celebration of Life will be livestreamed for those unable to attend in person. Email here for messages or further information.

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