The German Exam
- Professor D. H. Gorman
Soon after I agreed to write something for the “History of the Walker Mineralogical Club”, I realized that because of my long (44 years) association with the club, my most difficult task would be the selection of a topic. After much reminiscing, I thought it might be appropriate for the present Honourary President to write something about the first Honourary President, Prof. M. A. Peacock. But again, I was faced with selection because over the years, Prof. Peacock’s students, particularly his graduate students, have amassed a large number of “Peacock stories”. What to choose! After considerable reflection, I thought readers might be amused by an anecdote concerning both of us, and one that might give an intimate glimpse of the first Honourary President, a brilliant but somewhat eccentric mineralogist.
To appreciate fully this anecdote, the reader should know that Prof. Peacock was a master not only of the English language but also of the German language in several of its forms. As noted elsewhere, he was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI, was shot down, and spent considerable time as a prisoner of war, living with elitist officers of the German air force. After the war, he worked with the world’s leading crystallographer,
Victor Goldschmidt, at Heidelberg. So it was that he learned his excellent German.
At the time of my arrival at the University of Toronto in 1947 as Prof. Peacock’s newest graduate student, it was compulsory for all Ph.D. candidates in geology to pass examinations in scientific French and German. Naturally, Prof. Peacock was the examiner in German and in this capacity, he was a hard taskmaster. It was well known that several mineralogists-to-be had been denied doctorates until they finally passed the “German requirement”. Knowing this and armed with a wide selection of scientific dictionaries, German-English articles and two university courses in the language, I diligently set out to become proficient in the translation of German mineralogical papers.
Consequently, it came to pass that one afternoon, I went to see Prof. Peacock and informed him that I was ready to sit the German exam. He said, “We’re in luck. Here is a short, five-page article in German that I have just received by mail. I haven't had time to read it. Take it to your office, translate it - it should only take you an hour or so - see me in my office at eleven o'clock tomorrow morning, and read it to me in English.”
So I took the thing to my office, got out my several dictionaries and started to translate. I vividly recall the time, 2:10 PM. Well, the first page consisted of one long paragraph, and that paragraph consisted of one long sentence. After taking me two hours to find a verb, at 6:00 PM, I finally finished translating page one.
Feeling frustrated, and dry, I took the article and one dictionary and walked to the El Mocambo Tavern on Spadina Avenue, ordered a draft beer (10 cents in those days) and started on the second page. At 8:00 PM, I ordered another draft and by 10:00 PM, I had finished the translation - which was truly pathetic. It turned out that the paper was written by two physicists and concerned the X-ray camera they had invented. It contained not one word of a mineralogical nature!
The next morning, at 11:00 AM, as directed, I knocked on Prof. Peacock’s office door. After inviting me to come in, he asked, “How did you make out?” I replied, “Well, I got through it, but I'm afraid I didn't do very well.” He looked a little disturbed and asked, “How long did it take you?” I replied, “About eight hours.” He was flabbergasted, and gruffly asked to see the original paper. He took it from me, laid it out on his desk and looked at it for several minutes. I noticed that he never, in that time, turned the first page. Finally after what seemed like hours to me, he looked up and said, “No wonder you had trouble with this. This is the most atrociously written German I have ever encountered. Let’s go to lunch.” And off we went to the Little Denmark, his favourite dining spot in the College-Bay area.
The subject of German never arose again, but as I was subsequently awarded a Ph.D. by the University, I can only assume that I passed what I have always considered a most
unusual university examination.