The Best Teacher I Ever Had

Homer, who described Athena as the “wise and trusted counselor” of Odysseus, first articulated the Greek notion of a mentor. Now four York professors who are Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada are among those paying tribute to their mentors in a new book, The Best Teacher I Ever Had – Personal Reports from Highly Productive Scholars, edited by Alex Michalos, published by The Althouse Press.

The York contributors are Professor Emeritus Ralph Nicholls of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science and director (emeritus) of York’s Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science (CRESS); Professor Emeritus Joseph Agassi of the Department of Philosophy; Professor David Regan of the Departments of Psychology & Biology, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, and NSERC/CAE Industrial Research Professor of Vision & Aviation; and Professor Emerita Clara Thomas, York Canadian Studies Research Fellow and professor (emerita) of English.

For Nicholls (right), his sixth form mathematics and physics master, Cyril Baxter at the Country School for Boys in Hove, Sussex, England, had the greatest impact on his career. “His supportive and sensitive preparation gave all of us, particularly during the sixth form (equivalent to freshman university level), a real love of mathematics and physics, and a real appreciation for mathematical beauty.”


Karl Popper (left) is regarded by many as one of the great philosophers of science in the 20th century. He is also the teacher whom Agassi (right) cites as the person who earned his trust. “At first my scholarly techniques were of little use as I was undisciplined. Popper’s earnest dedication and egalitarian attitude dismantled my resistance effortlessly.”


Regan (left) remembered when he first encountered Gerald Westheimer (right), professor of molecular and cell biology and a clinical professor of Optometry at the University of California, Berkeley. “He told me that my eagerness was all very well, but it would lead to nothing unless I had a secure base for my research; to ensure that, he said, I must take care to be on good terms with my departmental and university colleagues.”


By the time Clara Thomas (right) found her “best teacher” she was a PhD student at the University of Toronto. She had heard intimidating stories of A.S.P. Woodhouse (left) and his controversial views, but undaunted, in the summer of 1949, she enrolled in his Victorian Thought seminar. “Nothing I had heard prepared me for the delight of his lectures, read entirely from the black-covered scribblers…. Every word of every lecture was written out in those notebooks, including the jokes at the expense of the ‘New Critics,’ currently anathema to him.”

The Best Teacher I Ever Had – Personal Reports from Highly Productive Scholars, is available from The Althouse Press. For more information, visit