Passings: Professor Emerita Doris Nicholls

A field of flowers at sunset

Doris Nicholls (née McEwen), professor emerita of biology in the Faculty of Science, died peacefully on Aug. 17 at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario, to the strains of The Glen Miller Band’s “In The Mood.” She was 94.

Doris Nicholls

One half of a scientific power couple, Professor Nicholls was predeceased by her adored husband of 56 years, Ralph Nicholls, O.C., who was a York University Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of physics and the founder of the Centre for Research on Earth and Space Science.

Born in Bayfield, she was a brilliant student, earning many awards, scholarships, bursaries and accolades throughout her academic career. This brilliance continued as she advanced scholastically and earned an incredible four degrees at Western University – Bachelor of Science, Master of Science (both in Botany), MD cum laude with two gold medals and a PhD in Biochemistry. These designations are impressive now but a truly incredible feat for a woman during those early days of academia and research.

In 1965, the Nicholls were together recruited by the burgeoning York University to help establish the new university, to teach and to conduct research, which they continued to do well into the 2000s. As Professor Emerita of biology at York University, Professor Nicholls taught and mentored many graduate students throughout the years. She was regarded as a quiet, very intelligent and caring professor who was available always for her students. That was her work persona but those who were fortunate enough to know Professor Nicholls outside those academia walls, knew her as an incredibly intelligent, shiny and bubbly spitfire, able to recall a litany of facts on many subjects as well names and places with a ferocity that was unparalleled. She was a gracious host, excellent cook and baker – which she continued to do, preparing her three meals from scratch every day until her last days.

“I arrived as a new faculty member in the Department of Biology in summer 1968, three years after Doris joined the department and the Faculty as a pioneering woman. She was one of the first colleagues who I met on arrival and she was very warm and welcoming to me. This warmth and welcoming attitude were constants of my and other’s interactions with Doris over the years. She was a biochemist and along with the late Bob Allen in chemistry, was the face and core of biochemistry teaching and research at the time,” said University Professor Emeritus Ron Pearlman. “The late Dave Logan and I joined the biology department soon thereafter to expand this core group that with time, developed into a core strength of biochemistry, cell and molecular biology in the Faculty. Doris was a pleasant and interactive colleague who in her quiet but important way made strong contributions in the early years and subsequently to the development of the molecular biosciences at York. It was a pleasure for me to work with and interact with her over many years. I have certainly missed her since her retirement and although she visited periodically, she did not have a strong presence in the department since her retirement. We should all thank her and recognize her contributions in the development of the department, particularly in the molecular biosciences, as well as her other interests such as nature and wildlife preservation.”

“When I arrived at York University in 1968 I was surprised to find that a leading physics professor from my former graduate school [Western University] and his wife were now at York University. A few years later, the embryo Chemistry Department was moved from Farquharson to the new physics building (Petrie) where I was assigned a lab, unwittingly, directly above one of Ralph Nicholls’ labs. One day, he called me to task for having a water leakage in my lab, which was endangering his expensive devices. I fixed it and apologized. His annoyance waned and he explained how he met his wife when her lab overflowed in the same way!” said Clive Holloway, professor emeritus of chemistry.

Though her physical health had been declining over the past couple of years, her brilliance and zest for life did not wane. To the end, Professor Nicholls remained compassionate, fun loving and caring with an infectious laugh that seemed too big for her tiny frame.

As per her wishes, no funeral service will occur. In her memory, donations in her honour may be made to any of her favorite charities, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ontario Nature, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Salvation Army.