John Tuzo Wilson was a Canadian geophysicist and geologist who received worldwide acclaim for his contributions to plate tectonics. Need a refresher? Plate tectonics is the theory according to which earth’s outer crust is composed of seven main plates, which move according to forces deep inside the planet. The shifting of these plates can cause earthquakes and prompt major geological changes—think forming volcanoes, raising mountains and opening and closing ocean basins. Wilson’s work, which remains authoritative to this day, helped explain various geological phenomena and provided further evidence for plate tectonic theory.
Born in Ottawa in 1908, John Tuzo Wilson studied at the University of Toronto and was one of the first people in Canada to obtain a degree in geophysics. He went on to receive his doctorate in geology from Princeton, after which he put his academic career on hold to enlist in the army. He served during the Second World War and reached the rank of colonel before retiring and returning to his alma mater in Toronto, this time as a professor and researcher. He spent twenty years in this position before taking an appointment as principal at Erindale College. After he retired seven years later, he became the director general of the Ontario Science Centre and took on various roles at the University of Toronto and York University. Following his second retirement he pursued numerous writing and research projects, working until his passing in 1993.
Outside of his involvement with plate tectonics, Wilson made valuable contributions to many other facets of earth sciences. He furthered humankind’s understanding of glaciers, ocean basins and mountain building, and helped pioneer the use of photos in geological mapping. He’s also behind the first glacial map of Canada.
In addition to his work in geology and geophysics, Wilson wrote two books about China and was an avid global traveller. He also spent his leisure time pursuing mountaineering, photography and sailing.
John Tuzo Wilson was granted 15 honorary degrees during his lifetime, in addition to numerous awards and medals. He notably received the prestigious Vetlesen Prize, widely regarded as the Nobel Prize for earth scientists. An Arctic mountain range, a volcano on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and a geophysics medal have all been named in his honour. His instrumental contributions to plate tectonic theory are fittingly commemorated by a sculpture outside the Ontario Science Centre. The piece represents the scope of continental drift that’s occurred since the 1908 birth of one of Canada’s greatest scientists.