John Ross Grace, 1943–2021

Article by Roland Clift CEng FIChemE

JOHN Grace was one of the leading chemical engineers in Canada, known worldwide for his work in fluidisation and fluid-particle systems. He died of Multiple System Atrophy in Vancouver on 26 May.

John graduated from Western University (then the University of Western Ontario) in 1965, followed in 1968 by a PhD from Cambridge where he was supervised by David Harrison and John Davidson. He then joined the Chemical Engineering Department at McGill University (Montreal). From 1979–1987, he was Head of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He was instrumental in developing the Department from a regional role into one with international standing, and in starting other activities including UBC’s Pulp and Paper Centre and Clean Energy Research Centre. He was Dean of Graduate Studies from 1990–1996, and President of the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering from 1989–1990.

John was a leading international figure in fluidisation and fluid-particle systems. Throughout his career, starting with his PhD, he pursued comprehensive systematic studies on fluid-particle systems, combining theoretical insights with carefully-designed experimental work. He made major contributions to understanding of fluidisation (from bubbling through turbulent and fast fluidised beds to dense suspension upflow systems) and spouted beds, with applications to combustion and gasification, primarily of biomass, and steam reforming of natural gas for hydrogen production. The last years of his life were dogged by ill-health, but he kept working productively to the end. His last major work - “Essentials of Fluidization Technology”, edited with Xiaotao Bi and Naoko Ellis – was published in 2020.

Listing someone’s professional work rarely captures their significance or why they leave a unique hole. Without being assertive, John set standards for personal and professional performance. The messages received since his death emphasise his generosity and supportive approach - his intellectual and ethical standards made him a role model for younger academics throughout Canada and more widely. However, he was a very private man: measured, self-effacing, not given to casual acts. I knew him well through close association over many years, starting when I became his first doctoral student, but it’s hard to find stories of amusing incidents involving him. The way he kept working right up to his death was typical of his extraordinarily steady character – he seemed the embodiment of Marcus Aurelius’ brand of stoicism, although he said he had never read Aurelius. But his spirit ran deep: on the rare occasions when the subcutaneous John broke through, he could be passionate and sometimes surprisingly sharp-edged.

John’s partner, Sherrill, was also a formidable academic – Head of the English Department at UBC; author of 26 critically-acclaimed books on Canadian topics and writers; and recipient of many awards. John and Sherrill loved canoeing and Wagner’s operas; they spent a sabbatical period in Germany and it was rumoured that they did so in order to attend the Bayreuth Festival. Sherrill often accompanied John at research conferences and was known to surprise speakers by asking penetrating questions. Both were made Officers of the Order of Canada in 2014, each in their own right – it may be unique for a husband and wife to be honoured in this way. Their daughter, Elizabeth, is a prominent civil rights lawyer in Ontario. Their son, Malcolm, is a major in the Canadian army.

Some of the indigenous people of the Pacific North-West hold that you die twice: once when your body dies, and finally when your name is spoken for the last time. John’s final death is a long way off.

Article by Roland Clift CEng FIChemE

Emeritus Professor at the University of Surrey, and Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.