Digby John McLaren Geophysics

One of the foremost authorities in the field of paleontology, First proposed that asteroids or comets might be linked to mass extinctions of dinosaurs

The Story

Digby McLaren was born to the family of James McLaren, the land agent for the Duke of Northumberland and a keen amateur geologist. Young McLaren studied at Sedbergh School in England and then at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Before completing the course, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1939, where he spent six years mostly in the Middle East and Europe. He returned to Cambridge in 1946 and finished his degree.

In 1948 McLaren moved with his family to Canada and joined the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). He did field work in the Rocky Mountains and Foothills, the Mackenzie Mountains and the Arctic Islands, specializing in stratigraphy and paleontology . In 1955 he took part in the GSC’s Operation Franklin, the first geological exploration and mapping survey of the Canadian Arctic Islands.

Soon, McLaren’s scientific expertise and management skills were recognized. He became Head of the GSC Paleontology Section in 1959. In 1967 he was appointed the first Director of the GSC’s new Institute of Sedimentary and Petroleum Geology in Calgary. There, he was in charge for exploring the oil and gas regions of western Canada. In 1973 McLaren headed the Geological Survey of Canada, assuming responsibility for geological exploration across Canada.

In 1981 he was named Assistant Deputy Minister of Science and Technology for Energy, Mines and Resources Canada (EMR). The same year McLaren joined the University of Ottawa as a Visiting Professor of Geology. At the university, he focused his research on meteors that hit the earth and the impact of those events. After this, his career took a more administrative turn.

In 1986 McLaren became one of the initiators of the International Geosphere-Biosphere programme because of the threat of climatic warming. From 1987 to 1990 McLaren served as President of the Royal Society of Canada. His major concerns during these years were the growth in world population and fall in natural resources.

McLaren authored over 100 papers and maps in the fields of paleontology, biostratigraphy and regional geology. He edited two books, Resources and World Development, 1987, and Planet under Stress: The Challenge of Global Change, 1991. Basing his theory on his own fossil studies, McLaren proposed that asteroids or comets that occasionally strike the Earth could have caused mass extinction of plants and animals 65 million yeas ago. He warned that a similar cataclysm might be caused by a man-made disaster.

McLaren’s health declined after his wife’s death in 2003. However, in 2004 he gave a speech at the 32nd International Geological Congress in Florence, Italy, where the Digby McLaren Medal of the International Commission in Stratigraphy was inaugurated. McLaren died a few days before his 85th birthday.

The medal commemorates Digby McLaren’s contributions in the development of the key “golden spike” concept of the GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points) with reference to the Silurian/Devonian boundary.


Digby J. McLaren, Past President of the Royal Society of Canada: Biography

McLaren’s biographical sketch from Archives Canada

Digby McLaren’s Obituary describes his position as an environmentalist in addition to his short biography

Digby Johns McLaren: Obituary

Image: The Royal Society of Canada



The Person

December 11, 1919
Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland
Date of Death
December 8, 2004
Place of Death
Ottawa, Ontario
Family Members
  • Spouse: Phyllis Matkin, d. 2003
  • Sons: Ian and Patrick
  • Daughter: Alison
  • Grandchildren: Jamis, Margot, Liam and Miles
Other Interests
Growing orchids
  • BA, 1940 and MA, 1948, (Geology) Cambridge
  • PhD (Geology and Paleontology), University of Michigan, 1951
  • Officer of the Order of Canada, 1987
  • Logan Medal of the Geological Association of Canada, 1987
  • Edward Fitzgerald Coke Medal of the Geological Society of London, 1985
  • Leopold von Buch Award, 1982
  • Fellow of the Royal Society, London, 1979
  • Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 1979
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, 1968
Last Updated
December 6, 2011

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