Between a UFO and a Hard Place: The Real-Life Science Heroics of Dr. Omond Solandt
Type the name “Omond Solandt” in a search engine these days, and you will likely find these top four entries. First, a very thin Wikipedia article. Second, an entry for the scholarship named in Solandt’s honour. And third, you will find a detailed article I wrote about Dr. Solandt and his career. If these were your first attempts to find details about this man, you’d be introduced to an incredible intellect: a physiologist who visited Stalin’s Russia as a student; a polio survivor and soldier-scientists who pioneered a branch of applied science; and, a man who walked an atomic battleground and held court with the highest echelons of military science during the deadly and early cold war. He was a man of importance, distinction, and contribution who led an amazing life.
When I began my doctoral research on Dr. Solandt in 2003, though, the number one entry on him online, currently number four, was from the The Presidents UFO Website: A Tale of Extraterrestrial Politics in the White House, created and run by UFO conspiracy proponent Grant Cameron. The site has an entire section on Canadian UFO material from the 1950s, including letters to and from Dr. Solandt by both Cameron and other UFO enthusiasts and skeptics (which appear to be authentic), as well as letters from engineer Wilber Smith. In the 1950s, Smith worked for Dr. Solandt’s Defence Research Board (DRB), the Canadian government’s defence research organization for the armed forces. Most of the letters concern investigations conducted by the Canadian government when UFO hysteria was running wild in the 1950s. Smith worked on one of these projects and became obsessed with trying to contact UFOs.
But the most upsetting part of the site is a transcribed interview one Dr. Armen Victorian allegedly had with Solandt by phone in 1991. Solandt was 82, ill, and two years away from his death. Solandt is patient and gracious, explaining that DRB tried to keep an open mind about such things, but Smith’s work led nowhere, the investigations turned up nothing, and the evidence of the UFOs was nonexistent and not something he had much interest in. Victorian’s questions were insistent and aggressive, and while pleasantries abounded they also often read as the badgering of an elderly man.
Ten years after his death in 1993, when I started his biography, Solandt’s name was forgotten to all but the most diehard historians of the Cold War in Canada and a few former defence official and scientists. Anyone interested in his life that went online would see Dr. Solandt was a minor cog in the conspiratorial wheel of aliens and UFOs, perhaps a nefarious one.
This state of affairs was obscene. Dr. Solandt’s life was far more interesting than the strained theories on a cruddy website made in the 1990s. He was a true science hero, one whose intellect, dedication to research and efficiency, and meticulous ability to problem-solve led him from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the atomic battlegrounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and beyond.
Though never beyond terra firma.
Born in 1909, Solandt became one of the great minds of his generation in Canada: a penetrating intellect, a pragmatic, technical problem-solver, and an utter beast on the football field. He excelled through public and high school and arrived at the University of Toronto in 1927, ready to conquer any field he found. He became the star pupil of the physiology department’s star teacher Dr. Charles Best, co-discoverer of insulin with Nobel laureate Sir Frederick Banting.
Under Best’s patronage, Solandt cleaned house, earning gold-medal standing for academic achievement. Sadly, a vicious bout of bulbar polio almost killed him, but under the tireless support of his mother he recovered, finished his masters, and prepared for grad work at Cambridge. Best also arranged for Solandt and his older brother Don (also one of Best’s brightest) to attend the 14th Physiological Conference in Leningrad and Moscow in 1935. In Stalin’s Russia they drank cherry brandy, attended opulent buffets, and saw impressive Soviet facilities contrasted with shoeless women repairing railway tracks in winter as shadowy government agents stalked their movements.
At Cambridge in 1938, Solandt earned a reputation as an insanely rigorous researcher while working with Sir Alan Drury, founder of the Lister Institute. After acing the dreaded Royal Medical Exams on the first try (a rare feat), he finished his MA at Cambridge and prepared for a career in physiology. Confident, brilliant, and cagey, Solandt bucked authority if he found he had a better answer, and he often did. He championed talented researchers under his charge, and worked harder than anyone in any organization he ran to set the standard. He had no time for personages of pedigree and vanity, but liked people from any walk of life that were capable and engaged with the world around him, be it the mechanic on the shop floor or a member of the Royal Society. And he prided himself on controlling his emotions, keeping them under wraps so they would not sully his experiments, so while some found him cold, others appreciated his excellent research. This collection of abilities and attitude would find much use after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.
From Tank Doctor to Atomic Expert
Solandt was soon tasked to run the South West London Blood Depot during the Battle of Britain. He earned high marks for its efficiency in supplying blood to hospitals during the worst of the Blitz, as well as rescue work and research for those suffering from crush injuries (being pinned under debris). The British military took notice, too, and soon Solandt was selected to create and run a physiological laboratory for the Armoured Fighting Vehicles School in Dorset. Tank crews were passing out during gun trials just as the armored war in North Africa intensified. Solandt and his team soon realized it was the amount of carbon monoxide being released into the sealed tank, primarily from the Besa machine gun, and began work on ventilation and tank design. Other man-machine problems arose with optics, night fighting, and chemical warfare gear. Solandt and his crew were now in high demand.
Solandt then jumped to the British Army Operational Research Group. AORG was an ad hoc science organization that did for all the British Army what Solandt was doing for the Armoured Corps: using science to solve a range of problems, from antiaircraft system design to lethality-of-weapons studies. Their approach was a new form of applied science known as operational research, in which pragmatic scientific methods from physics to zoology were used to solve problems, improve equipment and training, and even change strategies. Solandt soon became the deputy superintended of AORG under the command of Brigadier Basil Schonland, the famed South African physicist and lightning expert, and eventually ran AORG when Schonland left. At war’s end, he’d been tasked to become scientific advisor to Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, but the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war before he arrived.
Instead, in November of 1945 Solandt joined the British Mission to Japan to survey the damage of the atomic bombs. While their main objective was examining structural damage, Solandt’s medical training made him a boon to investigating the impact of the bombs on the Japanese people. So it was that when the Canadian government offered him the chance to lead its first peacetime defence research organization, the Defence Research Board (DRB), they got a genius, a pioneer in operational research, a seasoned leader and manager of military science organizations, and an early expert on the realities of atomic warfare. The kind of career that makes UFO hysteria look like third-rate science fiction.
The Cold Warrior
Solandt led the DRB from its birthing pains to its massive buildup after the Korean War, with over a thousand employees and dozens of establishments, labs, liaison groups and detachments. As Chairman, Solandt was both a chief executive of a national science organization and a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Canada’s senior military body, where he was given the equivalent rank of lieutenant-general so he would not be pushed around or ignored by the senior services. He stuck out like a sore thumb in his civilian attire, slicked hair, and glasses, and the fact that he was a 37-year-old genius who’d retired his war rank as colonel in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1945, but knew what atomic war actually looked like.
DRB did groundbreaking and valuable work in advanced radar communications, chemical and biological warfare defence, weapons design, and winter warfare research. He sent OR field teams to Korea and more. Solandt was perhaps the most knowledgeable member of the Canadian government on atomic affairs, attending British atomic tests in Australia, working with Canadian civilian nuclear researchers, and promoting atomic warfare courses for the Canadian military. In public, Solandt became a science celebrity in North America and Europe, conducting dozens of lectures on science, warfare, and the atomic bomb long before futurist Herman Kahn became famous for his controversial thermonuclear chats.
The Soviets took notice. They were not pleased.
In the Soviet press, Solandt was portrayed as a cold, inhuman tool of Western imperialism and an abuser of science. A May 1950 article in Pravda quoted Solandt as saying that robots were “cool-headed and able to concentrate under fire.” Such practical statements were taken by Pravda as evidence that the West was preparing to replace human soldiers with robots to face the Red Army. In April 1952, James G. Endicott, a former Canadian missionary from Toronto who was in China during the Korean War, made public speculations about Solandt and the DRB’s biological warfare work. In an interview broadcast by Moscow, Endicott said Canada was manufacturing germs at Suffield to feed the alleged biological-warfare measures the U.S. was employing in Korean War. He then maligned Solandt by falsely quoting him as saying that the prospects for mass death through BW were “extremely heartening.” No evidence of such claims were ever brought to light, but concern grew in government until Ron Kenyon of the Toronto Telegram interviewed Solandt. “This was no fire-spouting dragon as Dr. Endicott would have him,” Kenyon wrote. “He was just not the type to describe the horrors of bacteriological warfare as ‘heartening.’ In fact he had assured me that he had said no such thing.” Endicott’s statements were summed up by Solandt as a fishing expedition for propaganda purposes, and the matter dropped.
And then came the UFOs. At least in the press.
For three years Solandt had quietly ignored the rising tide of supposed flying-saucer sightings in Canada and the U.S., but by 1952, there was too much public interest. Solandt told the press that he was “as mystified as anyone else” regarding the sightings of odd lights in the sky and said he and senior scientists were “keeping open minds on the questions.” This included the creation of the aptly titled “Committee Set Up to Deal with ‘Flying Saucers’ Sightings” under the Chairmanship of astrophysicist Dr. P. W. Millman of the Dominion Observatory, and would be given the name Project Magnet (where engineer Wilbur Smith ran his failed tests). No evidence of UFOs was ever found. But for some, the fact that there were committees involved in investigating UFOS was proof enough.
When Solandt retired from the DRB in 1956, his list of accolades and awards was staggering, from a British OBE to an American Medal of Freedom and a Gold Medal from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (to name three of dozens), not to mention being made a Companion of the Order of Canada in the 1970s. Compared to the rest of his career, the sum total of his involvement in UFO hysteria amounted to peanuts. Sure, flying peanuts from Mars, but peanuts nonetheless. He’s also come a long way on the Internet; in addition to my own work, there’s finally a full Wikipedia entry and a Canadian Encyclopedia entry dedicated to him.
Despite being a straight-laced fellow, Solandt had discovered that much of the breakthroughs in life are not done by the regular joes who tow the party line. As he told a graduating class in 1954:
One of the very real dangers to our North American civilization is our worship of conformity. In almost every walk of life the person who conforms most pliably to the accepted standards of dress and behaviour is most likely to succeed. We must recognize that this enforcement of conformity will finally result in universal mediocrity. New ideas, especially in human relations and often even in science, come from those who refuse to conform.
I’ve always found great solace in Solandt’s battle cry for the eccentric. Thankfully, there has been a bump in Dr. Solandt’s reputation in the growing online environment of the 21st century—from a secondary character in the UFO hysteria of the 1950s to his proper place as one of the finest minds Canada produced in the 20th century, who made distinct contributions to the use of science in warfare against both the Nazis and the Soviet Union. He led a life dedicated to service and helping his country more than personal gain. It is a life worth remembering.