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George Michael Volkoff was a prominent theoretical physicist known for his pioneering work on neutron stars, his calculations for the design of the CANDU nuclear reactor during World War II, and his important role at the University of British Columbia as a teacher, researcher, and administrator. He was born in Moscow, Russia, on 23 February 1914. With his family, he emigrated to Canada when he was 10 years old – settling first in Winnipeg, then in Vancouver, where he attended Lord Roberts School. His father, Mikhail Mikhailovich Volkoff (spelled “Volkov” in Russia), was an engineer but could not find appropriate work in Canada. The family relocated to Harbin, Manchuria, in 1927, where George attended a Russian-language high school, and his father taught at a Russian technical school.
George returned to Vancouver in 1930 to attend the University of British Columbia, where he would earn a B.A. in physics in 1934, followed by an M.A. in 1936. He was a brilliant student, finishing top of his class in 1934 and winning the Governor-General’s Award. His mother died in Manchuria in 1928. His father returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, only to be caught up in the Stalinist purges of that period. In 1937 he was arrested and exiled to a work camp, where he died in 1940. Before this happened, however, he corresponded regularly with George. He also compiled his family history and collected various family documents, all of which he sent to his son before his arrest.
As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, George wrote his pioneering paper, “On Massive Neutron Cores,” with J. Robert Oppenheimer as co-author. In this paper, he postulated the existence of neutron stars three decades before they were actually observed in nature. After earning his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley in 1940, he continued to investigate topics in nuclear physics.
George returned to UBC in 1940 as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and, apart from his war work, remained there for the rest of his career – he was promoted to full professor in 1946. From 1961 to 1970, he was the head of his department, and in 1970 he was appointed Dean of Science, succeeding his brother-in-law Vladimir Okulitch – he held that position until his retirement in 1979.
During World War II, George lived in Montreal, where he worked in the Allied war effort at the University of Montreal, designing the first nuclear reactor to produce plutonium and other nuclear materials in connection with the Manhattan Project. It was completed in 1945, and the design became known as the CANDU reactor. For this, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1945 by UBC. In 1946, he was also made a member of the Order of the British Empire.
During the Cold War, George carried out important work as a liaison with scientists from the Soviet Union and translated many Russian-language physics articles into English. He served as the Canadian Association of Physicists president from 1962 to 1963. In 1994, George’s earlier work on neutron stars was largely acknowledged by his appointment as an officer of the Order of Canada.
In 1940 George married Olga Okulitch, whom he had met while he was a student at UBC. He had become good friends with her and her family. The Okulitchs were also Russian emigres – they had fled during the 1917 Revolution, eventually settling on a family farm in Abbotsford. Like George, Olga had been an outstanding student (B.A. 1933, M.A. 1935), majoring in bacteriology and microbiology, and was also an excellent scientist. While living in Montreal, she worked on the first commercial production of penicillin. She later taught at UBC and did research in industrial mycology. Olga and George would enjoy almost sixty years of married life together, living off-campus in the University Hill neighbourhood. They had three daughters: Elizabeth, Alexandra, and Olga.
Two of Olga’s brothers, Vladimir and George, also attended UBC, majoring in geological engineering and dairying. A third brother, Vladislav (“Lindy”), took the UBC agriculture occupational training course. Vladimir Okulitch became the first Dean of Science at UBC after the Faculty of Arts and Science was split in 1963; George eventually became general manager of Dairyland, and Vladislav became manager of the Okulitch family farm.
George Volkoff suffered a severe brain hemorrhage in 1996, which left him paralyzed but unable to speak. He spent the rest of his life in the extended care ward of UBC Hospital. He died on 24 April 2000. His wife Olga died on 10 January 2005.