John Tuzo Wilson

Photo of John Tuzo Wilson
Born October 24, 1908 in Ottawa, Canada, the eldest son of John Armistead Wilson and Henrietta L. (Tuzo) Wilson, John Tuzo Wilson received his first Bachelor of Arts degree in physics and geology from the University of Toronto in 1930 and his second shortly thereafter from Cambridge University. He earned his doctorate in geology from Princeton University in 1936. Soon after Dr. Wilson joined the Geological Survey of Canada, and did field work in the Northwest Territories. When World War II broke, he served in the Royal Canadian Army Engineers. In 1946 he joined the University of Toronto as professor of geophysics, and was further appointed principal of the University's Erindale College in 1967. In 1974 Wilson was named Director General of the Ontario Science Centre. He was also the chancellor of York University (1983-1986).
John Tuzo Wilson was an adventurous scholar whose professional impact was immense. His work was characterized by the combination of a vigorous imagination, a wide knowledge of regional geology and geophysics, and the insight and ability to synthesize the major features of the Earth. In the early 1960s, Wilson refined and championed the theory of plate tectonics, which was then held in disrepute, by contributing a crucial concept: he suggested that the Hawaiian and other volcanic island chains may have formed due to the movement of a plate over a stationary “hotspot" in the mantle. This theory eliminated an apparent contradiction in plate-tectonics theory – the occurrence of active volcanoes located many thousands of kilometers from the nearest plate boundary. Hundreds of following studies proved Wilson right. However, in the early 1960s, this idea was considered so radical that his "hotspot" manuscript was rejected by all the major international scientific journals. Indeed, everyone else believed that the continents were not movable and stayed in one place. The paper was finally published in 1963 in the Canadian Journal of Physics, and became a milestone in plate tectonics.
Another of Wilson's important contributions to the development of the plate-tectonics theory was published two years later. He proposed that there must be a third type of plate boundary to connect the oceanic ridges and trenches, which he noted can end abruptly and "transform" into major faults that slip horizontally. (A well-known example is the San Andreas Fault zone.) Unlike ridges and trenches, “transform faults,” as he called them, offset the crust horizontally, without either creating or destroying it. Wilson's hypothesis was soon confirmed and in a short time it became a cornerstone of geology – a rare example of a single person’s developing an elegant yet simple concept which can profoundly affect a major scientific field.

Wilson was also among the first to relate seafloor spreading to continental geology. The term Wilson Cycle is now used to refer to the cyclical process by which an ocean basin such as the North Atlantic closed (in so doing generating the Appalachian and the Caledonian mountain systems) and later re-opened, in this case to form the present Atlantic Ocean basin.

Dr. Wilson was elected president of the Royal Society of Canada (1972-1973), the American Geophysical Union (1980-1982), and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. He was also elected honorary fellow in many international scientific organizations. Among the many other honors and awards he received are the Bucher Medal of the American Geophysical Union, the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, the John J. Carty Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Logan Medal of the Geological Association of Canada. He served as the Chief Canadian Delegate on the NATO Science Committee, and was awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1984.
John Tuzo Wilson died on April 15, 1993, in Toronto.