John Tuzo Wilson Geophysics

Geophysicist: pioneer in the study of plate tectonics

"I enjoy, and always have enjoyed, disturbing scientists."

The Story

Following graduation from Princeton University, Wilson worked with the Geological Survey of Canada, then served during World War II. In 1946, he succeeded his previous professor, physicist Prof. Lachlin Gilchrist, and became Professor of Geophysics at the University of Toronto.

The discovery in 1947 of the Leduc oil field in Alberta meant a demand for geophysicists. Wilson pioneered the use of air photos in geological mapping and was responsible for the first glacial map of Canada. While searching for unknown arctic islands in 1946, he became the second Canadian to fly over the North Pole. He was internationally respected for his work on glaciers, mountain building, geology of ocean basins and structure of continents but his greatest contribution lies in his explanation of plate tectonics - the notion that the earth's crust is made up of a series of floating plates. His 1965 paper A New Class of Faults and their Bearing on Continental Drift is a classic in geology.

Wilson served on the National Research Council from 1958-64. He also wrote for popular audiences, including two books on China that helped reopen relations between China and Western countries.

Wilson "retired" from the University of Toronto in 1974, remaining as a distinguished lecturer and then professor emeritus, and serving as chancellor for York University between 1883 and 1986. He turned his considerable energies to the Ontario Science Centre, where he was Director General until 1985.

In recognition of Wilson's contributions to the advancement of the sciences of geology and geophysics, mountains in Antarctica and an extinct volcano on the floor of the Pacific, off Canada's west coast, were named in his honour.

Sources: The Canadian Encyclopedia 2000 ed.; Canada's Digital Collections; "A Century of Physics in Canada" in Physics in Canada Vol. 56, No. 2, 2000 March/April; Image: Canada's Digital Collections website.

The Person

October 24, 1908
Ottawa, Ontario
Date of Death
April 15, 1993
Place of Death
Toronto, Ontario
Family Members
  • Wife: Isabel Dickson
Professor of Geophysics
University of Toronto
  • BA (Geophysics), University of Toronto
  • BSc, Cambridge University, England, 1932
  • PhD, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1936
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1968 Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, 1968
  • Vetlesan gold medal, 1978
  • Walter H. Bucher Medal of the American Geophysical Union, 1968
  • Honorary Membership in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, 1973
  • John J. Carty Medal (National Academy of Sciences), 1975
  • Vetlesen Prize (Columbia University), 1978
  • Wollaston Medal (Geological Society of London), 1978
  • Huntsman Award (Bedford Institute of Oceanography), 1981
  • Maurice Ewing Medal (Society of Explorat
Last Updated
April 5, 2015

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