John Tuzo Wilson

John Tuzo Wilson CC OBE FRS FRSE FRSC (October 24, 1908 – April 15, 1993) was a Canadian geophysicist and geologist who achieved worldwide acclaim for his contributions to the theory of plate tectonics.

John Tuzo Wilson

John Tuzo Wilson in 1992
Born(1908-10-24)October 24, 1908
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
DiedApril 15, 1993(1993-04-15) (aged 84)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Alma mater
Known forTheory of Plate tectonics
Scientific career
FieldsGeophysics & geology
InstitutionsUniversity of Toronto
Doctoral advisorHarry Hammond Hess
Doctoral studentsHarold Williams

Plate tectonics is the idea that the rigid outer layers of the Earth (crust and part of the upper mantle), the lithosphere, is broken up into around 13 pieces or "plates" that move independently over the weaker asthenosphere. Wilson maintained that the Hawaiian Islands were created as a tectonic plate (extending across much of the Pacific Ocean) shifted to the northwest over a fixed hotspot, spawning a long series of volcanoes. He also conceived of the transform fault, a major plate boundary where two plates move past each other horizontally (e.g., the San Andreas Fault). His name was given to two young Canadian submarine volcanoes called the Tuzo Wilson Seamounts.[3] The Wilson cycle of seabed expansion and contraction (associated with the Supercontinent cycle) bears his name.


He was born in Ottawa on October 24, 1908, the son of John Armistead Wilson CBE, and his wife, Henrietta Tuzo.[4] Wilson's father was of Scottish descent and his mother was a third-generation Canadian of French descent.

He became one of the first people in Canada to receive a degree in geophysics, graduating from Trinity College at the University of Toronto in 1930.[5] He obtained a second (BA) degree from St. John's College, Cambridge in 1932 and then a doctorate (ScD). His academic years culminated in his obtaining his second doctorate (PhD) in geology in 1936 from Princeton University.

After completing his studies in 1936, Wilson joined the Canadian Geological Survey as a government geologist. This was interrupted by the Second World War during which he served with the Royal Canadian Engineers, serving in Europe and reaching the rank of Colonel. He was involved in Operation Musk Ox.[6]

After the war, in 1946, he was appointed the first Professor of Geophysics at Toronto University. In 1967 he became Principal of the university. In 1974 he left to become the Director General of the Ontario Science Centre. In 1983 he became Chancellor of York University, Toronto.

He retired in 1986 and died in Toronto on April 15, 1993.


In 1938 he married Isabel Jean Dickson.

Career and awards

John Tuzo Wilson was president (19571960) of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG). In 1969, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to the rank of Companion of that order in 1974.[7] Wilson was awarded the John J. Carty Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 1975.[8] In 1978, he was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London and a Gold Medal by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He also served as honorary vice president of the RCGS.[9] He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Canada, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.[10] He was the principal of Erindale College at the University of Toronto and was the host of the television series The Planet of Man. He was elected president-elect (19781980) and president (19801982) of the American Geophysical Union. He also served as the director general of the Ontario Science Centre from 1974 to 1985. He and his plate tectonic theory are commemorated on the grounds of the Centre by a giant "immovable" spike indicating the amount of continental drift since Wilson's birth.

The John Tuzo Wilson Medal of the Canadian Geophysical Union recognizes achievements in geophysics. He is also commemorated by a named memorial professorship and an eponymous annual public lecture delivered at the University of Toronto.

He is one of the 2016 inductees into Legends Row: Mississauga Walk of Fame.[11]


Wilson was an avid traveller and took a large number of photographs during his travels to many destinations, including European countries, parts of the then USSR, China, the southern Pacific, Africa, and to both polar regions. Although many of his photos are geological—details of rocks and their structures or panoramas of large formations—the bulk of his photos are of the places, activities and people that he saw on his travels: landscapes, city views, monuments, sites, instruments, vehicles, flora and fauna, occupations and people.

Selected publications

  • One Chinese Moon (1959)
  • Wilson, Tuzo (July 14, 1962). "Cabot Fault, An Appalachian Equivalent of the San Andreas and Great Glen Faults and some Implications for Continental Displacement". Nature. 195 (4837): 135–138. Bibcode:1962Natur.195..135W. doi:10.1038/195135a0.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (February 9, 1963). "Evidence from Islands on the Spreading of Ocean Floors". Nature. 197 (4867): 536–538. Bibcode:1963Natur.197..536W. doi:10.1038/197536a0.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (1963). "A Possible Origin of the Hawaiian Islands" (PDF). Canadian Journal of Physics. 41 (6): 863–870. Bibcode:1963CaJPh..41..863W. doi:10.1139/p63-094.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (July 24, 1965). "A new Class of Faults and their Bearing on Continental Drift". Nature. 207 (4995): 343–347. Bibcode:1965Natur.207..343W. doi:10.1038/207343a0.
  • Vine, F. J.; Wilson, J. Tuzo (October 22, 1965). "Magnetic Anomalies over a Young Oceanic Ridge off Vancouver Island". Science. 150 (3695): 485–9. Bibcode:1965Sci...150..485V. CiteSeerX doi:10.1126/science.150.3695.485. PMID 17842754.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (August 13, 1966). "Did the Atlantic close and then re-open?". Nature. 211 (5050): 676–681. Bibcode:1966Natur.211..676W. doi:10.1038/211676a0.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (1966). "Are the structures of the Caribbean and Scotia arc regions analogous to ice rafting?". Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 1 (5): 335–338. Bibcode:1966E&PSL...1..335T. doi:10.1016/0012-821X(66)90019-7.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (December 1968). "A Revolution in Earth Science". Geotimes. Washington DC. 13 (10): 10–16.
  • Wilson, J. Tuzo (1971). "Du Toit, Alexander Logie". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 4. pp. 261–263.

See also


  1. Garland, G. D. (1995). "John Tuzo Wilson. 24 October 1908–15 April 1993". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 41: 534–552. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1995.0032.
  2. West, Gordon F.; Farquhar, Ron M.; Garland, George D.; Halls, Henry C.; Morley, Lawrence W.; Russell, R. Don (2014). "John Tuzo Wilson, a man who moved mountains". Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. 51 (3): xvii. Bibcode:2014CaJES..51D..17W. doi:10.1139/cjes-2013-0175.
  3. Cousens, Brian L.; Chase, R. L.; Schilling, J.-G. (1985). "Geochemistry and origin of volcanic rocks from Tuzo Wilson and Bowie seamounts, northeast Pacific Ocean". Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. 22 (11): 1609–17. Bibcode:1985CaJES..22.1609C. doi:10.1139/e85-170.
  4. Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  5. Eyles, Nick and Andrew Miall, Canada Rocks: The Geologic Journey, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2007, p. 38 ISBN 978-1-55041-860-6.
  6. Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  7. "Order of Canada citation". Governor General of Canada.
  8. "John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on February 28, 2015. Retrieved February 25, 2011.
  9. "Gold Medal". Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
  10. "John Tuzo Wilson" (PDF). obituary. Royal Society of Edinburgh.
  11. "Malton native and NHL legend Paul Coffey heads Legends Row Class of 2016". October 27, 2016.
  • "J. Tuzo Wilson". GSA Today, Rock Stars. September 2001. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
Academic offices
Preceded by
John S. Proctor
Chancellor of York University
Succeeded by
Larry Clarke
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Henry Duckworth
President of the Royal Society of Canada
Succeeded by
Guy Sylvestre
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