John Tuzo Wilson: Earthly Goods

J. Tuzo WilsonWith his term beginning July 1, 1967, Erindale College’s second principal appears to have set the tone that still resonates in the administration on the Mississauga campus today: John Tuzo Wilson was a respected academic of international repute, but he was also affable and accessible, entertaining faculty, students and visitors at Lislehurst, the principal’s residence on campus, and his vast travels around the world fuelled his passion for research, business and adventure.

An avid outdoorsman with a keen interest in forestry research at an early age, Wilson began doing fieldwork when he was 15, working at a government forestry camp in Petawawa, Ont. He also liked to climb mountains, following in the footsteps of his mother, Henrietta Tuzo, the first woman to climb the 10,600-foot ‘Peak Seven’ in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, west of Banff, and for whom the mountain is now named. At age 25, Wilson himself was the first to climb the highest mountain in Montana, the 12,328-foot Mount Hague, when he was there researching his thesis.

And this was just one of many firsts. In 1930 Wilson was the first student to earn a BA in physics and geology at U of T. When Wilson taught at U of T in 1946, he was the only professor of geophysics in Canada at that time. He was also an observer on the first U.S. air-force flight over the North Pole in 1947. His early pioneering research focused on geochronology, which theorized that some Canadian provinces had different structural trends and varied ages.    

When he settled in at Erindale College, the main focus for his research, and for which he was internationally recognized, was physics of the earth, ocean-floor dynamics and oceanic-life history, continental drift theory, plate tectonics and the structure of scientific revolutions. Tuzo’s documentation of the Atlantic Ocean was particularly effective and largely adopted, and resulted in naming the opening and closing of ocean basins as the Wilson Cycle.

When Wilson was named principal of Erindale, some were surprised by U of T President Claude Bissell’s choice, but also Tuzo’s acceptance of the post, since he had not served in a senior administration position at the university at that time and the campus was just being developed (there was 300 acres of land, only one building and the relationship between the downtown campus and the suburban one was not clearly established).

Never one to shy away from a challenge and with the influence of his wife Isabel, Wilson accepted the position, and his and Isabel’s hospitality to visitors became legendary, entertaining more than 10,000 guests at Lislehurst over a seven-year period. The buildings that were subsequently erected on campus were designed with an open aesthetic to give more of a sense of approachability, and the research and fields of study differed from the downtown campus, giving Erindale its own unique feel and programs. For example, Wilson created the Earth and Planetary Sciences department, which combined geology and geophysics, where he encouraged experimental research in areas such as rock magnetism.

Wilson, who was the recipient of many research honours and accolades including being named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968 and receiving the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada in 1970, definitely made a lasting impression at U of T Mississauga. As a commendable ambassador for the newly-established campus, a world-renowned researcher, and an advocate for distinctive fields of study, Tuzo Wilson remained the principal, as well as a professor and researcher at Erindale, until his retirement from the university in 1974.   

Some lesser-known Tuzo Wilson Tidbits:

  • In 1968 when Tuzo Wilson was attending the 23rd International Geological Congress in Prague, he and several other delegates were detained due to a Russian invasion that briefly immobilized the city and the conference’s activities.
  • In a 1973 Toronto Star column, “Sutton’s Place,” Joan Sutton devoted an entire article to Wilson. She began the item with “Long before I ever knew what the word geophysics meant, I had heard of Tuzo Wilson…”
  • The same columnist named Wilson as one of Toronto’s sexiest men “because he has energy, and because he is creative.”

By Carla DeMarco