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Lister Sinclair, Renaissance man

The Story

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "polymath" as "a person of much or varied learning". It might as well include a photo of Lister Sinclair. Broadcaster, playwright, performer, director, mathematician, birder, musicologist, producer and host, Lister Sinclair was the very embodiment of the Renaissance man. Sinclair passed away on October 16, 2006, at age 85. In this excerpt from the 1957 CBC Television program Explorations, Sinclair tries the unimaginable: he explains Einstein's general theory of relativity in layman's terms.

Medium: Television
Program: Explorations
Broadcast Date: Feb. 26, 1957
Host: Lister Sinclair, Mavor Moore
Duration: 3:20

Did You know?

• Lister Sheddon Sinclair was born on Jan. 19, 1921 in Bombay, India. (The name Lister came from his mother's side of the family.) His father was a chemical engineer, and his mother managed the household. Worried about raising their only child in India, Sinclair's parents sent him to London at 18 months old, to be raised by his Aunt Maude and Uncle Parker. He did not see his parents again until he was seven and a half years old.

• In England, Lister Sinclair attended boarding school, describing his aunt and uncle as "total, total strangers." His childhood was lonely, made bearable by reading voraciously and listening to the radio.
• He moved to Vancouver at age 18 and said he instantly felt at home.
• In 1944, Sinclair began teaching mathematics at the University of Toronto, and started writing plays for CBC Radio to make some extra money.

• Lister Sinclair's broadcasting career spanned six decades. He wrote, directed and performed in some 400 dramas in the early days of CBC Radio. On television, he was one of the first producer/hosts of The Nature of Things. He produced many television documentaries, dramas and programs, and made frequent appearances on Front Page Challenge, Telescope, Horizon, Festival, Court of Opinion, Wayne and Shuster and Morningside. For 16 years he was the host of CBC Radio's Ideas.

• Lister Sinclair was a founder of ACTRA, the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists (now Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), was vice-president of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, and served as executive vice-president of the CBC.
• On Oct. 30, 1985, Sinclair was awarded the Order of Canada.
• In the fall of 1999, at age 78, Sinclair was replaced by Paul Kennedy as host of Ideas.

• Foremost among Sinclair's many passions were Shakespeare, classical music, and mathematics. He said the beauty of each lay in their elegant "arrangement of ideas" - something that became his life's mission. Sinclair knew or worked with world leaders in many of these fields. Their common reaction was that of renowned accompanist Graham Johnson, who was dazzled to find that in a field in which he had worked his entire life, Sinclair "seemed casually, even nonchalantly, equally informed and at home."

• To celebrate his 80th birthday, Sinclair hosted an online chat. One participant asked the obvious: "How did you get so damn smart?" Sinclair credited working with smart people, and childhood reading of books "good, bad and indifferent. The range of books didn't make me into a highbrow. There was so much exciting trash around that I came out some kind of 'omni brow'."

• Lister Sinclair is remembered for his distinct accent, described by Toronto Star writer Peter Goddard as "cultivated, knowing, and 'upper' - but upper what?" Mishearing his name, some listeners thought Sinclair was being overly formal, believing he began each broadcast with "I'm Mister Sinclair."
• When asked why he kept working so late into his life, Sinclair simply replied, "Stop pedaling, and you fall off. I don't wish to rust out. I don't mind wearing out. But rust out? No."


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