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UPDATED: Tue Dec 12, 2000 11:22 AM

Anatole Volkov
Physicist was 'fabulous teacher'


Stewart Brown
The Hamilton Spectator
Anatole Volkov Anatole Volkov 'was always smiling.' The retired McMaster faculty member was an accomplished academic, physicist and golfer who died in Florida.

McMaster University professor Anatole Volkov took up theoretical nuclear physics because it was the glamour profession when he was in high school in the 1940s.

Otherwise, Volkov might have become a historian. As it was, history remained a passion for the retired teacher and researcher, who died at 76 of cancer on Nov. 28 at his winter home in Lakeland, Florida.

A voracious reader, Volkov was fascinated with Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War.

But he also devoured books about the Second World War and the ancient history of central Asia -- of Genghis Khan and the Huns and Belisarius, the brilliant sixth-century Byzantine general.

"Dad just loved history. I don't think there was a period of history he wasn't knowledgeable about," said his son, Mark, of Dundas.

Anatole Boris Volkov's own life was intertwined with history. He descended from Russian aristocracy through his mother's family, the Wittes, of Dutch origin.

His uncle was Count Sergei Witte, Russia's finance minister under Czar Nicholas II from 1892 to 1903. His mother was a baroness.

But that changed with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Volkov's mother and her war-hero husband immigrated to San Francisco, where Anatole was born in 1924.

The parents divorced and Volkov's mother married Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, an agricultural economist in the American government, who later became a land developer in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Anatole sandwiched two years as a radar operator with the United States Navy in the Pacific between four years as an undergraduate in science at North Carolina University. He got his M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Silvermaster, his stepfather, was one of many hounded during the hysteria of the American Communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, fueled by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Volkov refused to testify against his stepfather and -- upon graduation -- faced an unwelcoming American research climate as a result.

He went to Israel with his wife, Pearl, and children, Lisa and Mark, where he did research at the Technion, Israel's oldest institute of science and technology, in Haifa, and the Weitzmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

He then worked at the Nils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen in 1963, where he met Mel Preston, dean of graduate studies at McMaster University, who was on a sabbatical.

That led to Volkov's hiring by future Nobel laureate Bert Brockhouse for McMaster's crack theoretical nuclear physics group.

Volkov arrived in 1964 and stayed until his retirement in 1989. During his years at McMaster, he combined teaching and research.

"He was a fabulous teacher," said John Colarusso, a friend from the anthropology faculty, who sat in on three of Volkov's courses.

"He was a jolly person, very warm and friendly, a big man who was always smiling. He was rigorous but not arrogant. The students liked him. He really was a kindly man."

Mark describes his father as a social person who loved solitude. Though both often golfed together at area courses, such as Flamborough Hills and Knollwood, Anatole also loved to hit the links on his own.

"He'd go out at six in the morning and play two or three balls. He read all kinds of books about the mechanics of the swing and he was trying to conquer that through the intellect. He was no duffer; when he was on, he shot in the low 80s.

"He loved classical music, particularly the composers of the early 20th century: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel, Debussy, Delius, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. And opera, particularly Wagner and The Ring Cycle.

"He also enjoyed photography and had his own darkroom," Mark said. "One of the funniest memories I have from childhood was the day he needed to open his camera but it had to be dark, so he wanted to climb into the trunk of the car and close the lid. But my mother objected."

On retirement, the Volkovs bought a house in Lakeland where they spent the winters, returning to Dundas each spring.

When Anatole was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, they stayed south year-round to be close to medical treatment. That was the logical decision, but they missed seeing their friends, and family, including granddaughters Julia, Monica and Alexandra.

"I was always impressed with how upbeat Anatole was," Colarusso said. "He bore things with great grace."


Our thanks to the Hamilton Spectator for permission to use this article.