Chemistry colleagues celebrate ‘Pure Intelligence’ of friend

The saddest line of a wonderful career is this – he never held his academic life’s work.

Mel Usselman came to Western’s campus in the 1960s. And never left.

Here, he earned an Honors BSc in Chemistry in 1968, a PhD in Chemistry in 1973 and, after flirting with a new discipline while completing his doctoral work, an MA in History in 1975. Afterward, he held a joint appointment between the departments of Chemistry and History of Medicine & Science, until 1981, when he joined Chemistry fully as an assistant professor.

USSELMAN

USSELMAN

During his celebrated career, he collected a near endless stream of teaching accolades and hardware. He was equally valued outside the classroom as a trusted confidant.

“He had insight into people – a straight-forward colleague who believed in the university, believed in the department, believed in people,” said Rob Lipson, a former Chemistry chair.

“I usually went to him when I had cheaters. That started many years of going to him. He would give me advice – wonderful advice,” said Chemistry professor Kim Baines, a former chair of the department. “He was known as the voice of reason in the faculty. And that’s who he was – not just in scientific matters, but also the way he ran his life as well.”

Usselman was an unusual blend – part scientist, part historian. That hybrid created confusion among a core science faculty early on. But he was eventually promoted to full professor in 2005. He retired in 2013.

However, throughout his career, and his life outside it, one project stalked him – ‘The Book.’

The Book was a biography of 19th century British scientist William Hyde Wollaston.

Wollaston was widely recognized during his lifetime as one of Britain’s leading scientific practitioners, and his death was seen by many as a part of the end of a glorious period of British scientific supremacy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he had never been the subject of a contemporary biography, and his many achievements have fallen into obscurity.

Others tried to pen The Book, but all failed. If it was a historian making the effort, they didn’t know enough science. If it was a scientist, they had difficulty navigating the historical context.

Usselman stumbled across Wollaston while researching his master’s thesis. He was hooked almost immediately and made plans to see what was available on this important-but-forgotten thinker. As Usselman readied for a trip to Great Britain, and his first deep research foray into Wollaston’s papers, he stopped into Headlines in the University Community Centre to get his hair cut.

There, he met his future wife, Trixie, for the first time.

“We hit it off right away,” she said. “It was one of those things; we clicked from the first. There was a lot of Wollaston in Mel. He had the same curiosity about everything. He was all over the map – sports to science to politics. Like Wollaston, Mel was a bit of a Renaissance man.”

Usselman eventually dedicated much of his research career to The Book – its painstaking historic exploration, the deciphering of previously unstudied laboratory records, the recreations of chemical experiments and discoveries, the writing, the editing. He openly shared the process with his colleagues.

“In the end, everyone knew about this book because it was consuming Mel,” said Lipson, who read The Book, chapter by chapter, over many years, making edits and suggestions along the way.

But life, as it does, had other plans for The Book’s timeline.

“Mel was the perfect example of work-life balance before we even talked about that kind of thing,” Baines said. “I took a lot of inspiration from him – he could be excellent with that perfect balance.”

When children came along, Usselman put them first. He coached – a lot – hockey, mainly, with four kids on the ice somewhere at one time. You also could have found him on a baseball diamond or soccer pitch with his kids. The man found time for it all, Baines said.

He was also creator of the Usselman Championship Frisbee Golf Course at M-T Acres, where he played countless games with his family. He cheerfully relinquished his long-held champion status to his children – and, once, to his wife – as they grew older. He envisioned and built, together with Trixie, an oasis of harmony, a place where he weeded his garden listening to the Jays’ games and watched the horses with perfect contentment as they rolled in the grass.

“He had a great sense of perspective,” Lipson said. “He obviously was driven to complete this book. But he had a fantastic work-life balance. He knew when to work and when to play. Not everyone in academia has that kind of important perspective.”

But The Book was always there – slowly getting closer and closer to completion.

And just when the end was in sight, the end came quickly.

The first signs of cancer came in early February. Even in that dark hour, Trixie couldn’t help but momentarily reflect on her husband’s obsession. A physician by training, Wollaston tracked his own migraines and eventually self-diagnosed his own brain tumour, asking for an autopsy to confirm his beliefs after his death.

Usselman was similarly intrigued in the face of his death. When the family headed into the hospital for a fateful meeting with the doctor, Usselman marveled at the CT scans of his own abdomen, including the ones showing the cancer working through his body.

“Mel was just amazed,” Trixie said. “He said, ‘Well, would you look at that. Can you bring up the resolution a bit higher? Can you see that? Isn’t that just amazing?’ At that moment I thought, he is out-Wollastoning Wollaston.

“He was interested in everything. And if that meant his own body, he was interested in that as well.”

Mel Usselman died on March 23. He signed off on The Book, approving its cover, just one week before.

Pure Intelligence will be the first book-length study of Wollaston, his science and the environment in which he thrived. It will be released next month.

“He wrote lots of articles for encyclopedias, he wrote a lot of articles he won awards for, but ut this was his life’s work; this was the thing that drove his passion the most,” Lipson said. “He was absolutely committed to completing this book. That’s why I was so thrilled when he finally did and so devastated when he didn’t live long enough to see it published and reviewed so positively.”

“Life can be random and cruel sometimes. He wasn’t the type of guy who went looking for accolades. But, as a friend, I want people to celebrate his achievements and for him to know how much we thought of him. But I know his work will be celebrated and read. There is some small comfort in that.”