Tag: National Film Board of Canada

My Mother’s Breakout Years

World War II was raging across Europe and the Pacific and the newspaper headlines were dire, but for my mother, the war years may have been the best of her life. After a sheltered childhood, she finally moved out from her parents’ house and found a job. Best of all, towards the end of the war, she met my father.

Joan Murray Smith was born in Montreal in 1918. She grew up an only child and attended a small, all-girls private school a short distance from her house. She was a good student, but shy and unsure of herself.

After finishing high school, she enrolled in art and typing courses. She kept up with her old school friends and there were always lots of parties to attend. In 1937, she and her parents boarded The Empress of Australia and sailed to England and Scotland for a short holiday. It was to be her only trip abroad. Two years later, the war broke out and such vacations became impossible.

A few years later, Joan joined the war-effort in her usual quiet way: she found a clerical position with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). At that time, the NFB was in its infancy. It was headed by John Grierson, a Scottish-born pioneer in documentary film-making, and my mother was thrilled to work there. She later told me that she helped set up the film library at the film board. She was well-organized, and no doubt she found the job both interesting and rewarding.

My mother kept this NFB catalogue in a scrapbook.

Many of NFB’s early films were morale-building movies focused on Canada’s role in the war.

They also produced documentaries informing people about civilian defence and the roles of different branches of the armed services. Other films were short educational documentaries about food and agriculture, and there was a series of films targeted at women to help homemakers deal with shortages of consumer goods. These were shown in movie theatres across Canada, while libraries made them available to school and church groups. In rural areas, they were shown in community centres, using travelling projectors supplied by the NFB. 

The NFB’s head office was located in Ottawa, a two-hour train trip from Montreal. Joan lived with her friend Denny and Denny’s father for a year, then she moved into a house with several other young women. Using the office typewriter, she wrote to a friend, “I am enjoying myself hugely. I got caught up in a round of small gaiety and am finding housekeeping wonderful fun. Not that I do anything but wash up as all the other girls have earlier hours than I do and always have the food ready for me at breakfast and dinner, which is very lucky for all concerned.”

Jim and Joan, probably 1946

Ottawa is a quiet city, but it was probably more interesting during the war. One of its chief advantages for a young single woman was that it was full of officers. As Joan wrote in another letter, “I have discovered a very nice captain whose chief virtue is that he is a wonderful dancer, but who unfortunately isn’t stationed here.”

Then she met Jim Hamilton, her husband-to-be. He too was working for the NFB. He had a science background and was making a film to educate members of the armed forces about sexually transmitted diseases.

Intelligent and something of a non-conformist, Jim was shy with women, while Joan was looking for someone different from the conservative sons of wealthy Montreal families she had grown up with. My vision of my future parents in their dating days comes from a photo, taken in the Gatineau hills on what looks to be a warm day in early spring 1946 in which they looked happy and carefree.

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Jim Hamilton: A Life

My father, James Drummond Hamilton, was born 100 years ago this week, on Sept. 27,1915. The son of Winnipeg physician Thomas Glendenning (T.G.) Hamilton and of Lillian (Forrester) Hamilton, Jim had an identical twin, Arthur. In photos, the twins were always together, usually dressed similarly. 

In February, 1919, the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the world hit the Hamilton household. Jim lost his right eardrum as a result of the flu and was deaf in that ear for the rest of his life. He also lost his twin brother.

Twins Jimmy and Arthur at the cottage, summer, 1918.

Dad didn’t talk about his childhood often, but he told me that his happiest childhood memories were of summers spent at the family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Undoubtedly, the most unusual aspect of his childhood was the fact that his parents spent many evenings attending séances in the family’s home. Meeting with a medium and a small group of friends, they watched tables rise into the air on their own and they tried to communicate with deceased individuals. This didn’t frighten Jim, but perhaps his school friends teased him about it. 

Jim was a very good student, and he graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1937 with a degree in physics. In 1938, he received an M.A. in physics, mathematics and chemistry from the University of Toronto. 

When World War II broke out, he wanted to enlist but, despite strong character references, he was rejected several times because of his perforated ear drum and poor eyesight. Finally the military changed its medical requirements and he became eligible for service, but by that time he was making documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada, including a public health film on the transmission and treatment of venereal disease.  

He met my mother, Joan Murray Smith, in Ottawa and they were married in 1946. They then moved to London, Ontario, where my father did cancer research at the University of Western Ontario and obtained a PhD in Medical Research. About the time I started kindergarten, Dad made another career move and enrolled in medical school. Eventually our family moved to Montreal and my father opened his own office in the Westmount Medical Building.    

He enjoyed being a family doctor, partly because he liked people. Many of his patients were elderly and they appreciated the fact that he would make house calls. But his real passion was for the theory he called triads. He thought about it and talked about it constantly.

On holiday in Florida, 1976

  He said that the theory he developed in collaboration with John Q. Stewart, a retired astrophysicist from Princeton University, explained problem solving by humans — and all animals — as a two-step process: first, P, the path to the goal, and second, F, the exchange of material, such as food or waste. He created the term merge, M, to describe mental ideas and images, which are formed by the interaction between P and F. He spent months with his slide-rule, working out a mathematical equation of his theory, then many more years at the typewriter, describing his ideas and their applications. 

His biggest disappointment in life was probably that most people could not understand this theory (especially the math), nor could he convince many people of its significance. On April 15, 1980, he wrote to a friend that he had been reading philosophy and was planning to rewrite his triads paper from a different perspective. Two days later, he suffered a fatal heart attack.  

His ashes are buried in Winnpeg, beside his twin’s grave.