The above image is of concrete blocks that had been buried for several years. The note on the back of the photo read, “original blocks put in a site 1st Ave – 22-23rd taken out in 1928 when Massey Harris Building put up.” Photography: University Archives and Special Collections, A-4756

Remember when

A concrete decision: Thorvaldson’s research had global implications

In the 1920s, the head of the Department of Chemistry, Thorbergur Thorvaldson, earned an international reputation for his work on Portland cement.

All across Western Canada, public and private structures (bridges, irrigation dams, and building foundations) were crumbling. After conducting a series of tests, it was found that sulphates in the alkaline soil were causing the cement to swell and break down.

Collaborating with a series of graduate students, Thorvaldson was able to develop a formula for cement that was resistant to sulfates.

The research was explained in the 1959 publication The Department of Chemistry University of Saskatchewan—“The basic plan of investigation as outlined in 1920 was to prepare in the pure form the chemical compounds, the silicates, aluminates, etc., which make up the various types of hydraulic cements; to study the physical and chemical properties of the compounds, particularly their behaviour in solutions of the salts commonly found in alkali waters....”

Thorvaldson’s findings transformed the manufacture of commercial cement around the world and significantly increased the durability of concrete structures. Because there was no patent issued with regard to the process, neither Thorvaldson nor the University of Saskatchewan benefited financially.

In the fall of 1966, the Chemistry Building, including a planned addition, was renamed the Thorvaldson Building. The concrete cube on the steps of the building is a monument to his research achievements.

Thorvaldson was born in Hofdoum, in the Blönduhlid district of Skafjordi, Iceland on Aug. 24, 1883. He emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1885, settling near Gimli, Man. Thorvaldson received a BSc (1906) from the University of Manitoba, and both his MSc (1909) and PhD (1911) from Harvard. During the next two years he studied in Dresden, Germany and at the University of Liverpool in England.

He returned to Harvard for one year as a research associate before joining the University of Saskatchewan as assistant professor of chemistry in 1914. He was named head of the department in 1919, a post he held for 28 years.

In 1946, he was name the first dean of the College of Graduate Studies.

In his annual report for 1952, President W.P. Thompson noted Thorvaldson’s “remarkable capacity as a scientist,” and praised his contributions.

“Many of the problems solved by his wide knowledge and experimental ability have been directly related to economic improvement, and the value of his researches could be computed in amounts considerably greater than have been spent on the construction and maintenance of the university during its entire history. He has built up a Department of Chemistry that has carried the fame of the university wherever his students have gone.”

Among various honours, Thorvaldson was named a Fellow of the Royal Society (1928) and was awarded its Henry Marshall Tory medal; he was also named to Iceland’s Order of the Falcon, Knight’s Cross (1939) and Commander Cross (1956).

The university awarded him an honorary degree in 1950. Thorvaldson died in Saskatoon on Oct. 4, 1965. 

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