The Photographer

J. Tuzo Wilson was virtually predestined to become a geophysicist because of his parents. Jock, as he was familiarly known, was born into a household abounding in images and talk of mountains since his mother, whom he adored to the point of worship, had been a mountain-climber. Only 18 months before his birth (and seven before her marriage), Number Seven in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Alberta had been renamed Mount Tuzo in her honour, as she had recently made its first ascent. His father worked in the aviation field and was made Secretary of the Air Board of Canada with oversight of civil aviation when Jock was 11. Jock therefore grew up accustomed to and comfortable in planes, and to looking down from them on vast tracts of land in all its formations. As an undergraduate in university, he (and more unusually his younger sister) acquired a pilot's license.

Since his field of study was the earth, it was logical that Jock would try to see and record as much of it as he could. He was lucky that his attitude and constitution made him a natural for travel. He wrote in his unpublished memoirs that "I grew up believing that travel was splendid. I have never ceased to enjoy it, an enjoyment made possible by a strong digestion, a constitution proof against sea-sickness, a reasonable adherence to the common-sense rules of cuisine and hygiene, the ability to sleep anywhere in any position, patience, the realization that if one plane is missed there will be another later and, above all, a firm conviction that all will come out right in the end."

The Unspoken Legacy He Left Behind

The camera was always his preferred instrument for recording visual images, and this choice seemed to have come from family influences as well. His youngest great aunt and God-mother, Helen Ford, was an avid and skilled photographer who evidently had her own darkroom for the development of ambrotypes and later black and white films and prints. It was likely under her influence that his mother also became a keen photographer in her youth, a hobby adopted by her older son. In addition to thousands of earlier black and white photos, he took over 8,500 coloured slides in his lifetime, most of them on his travels.

Jock had innate assets needed for good photography. He was clearly a visual person, as is ably demonstrated by his unorthodox methods of scientific research. His younger colleague, Derek York, in a "Rock Stars" article in GSA Today, September 2001 stated that "His mind had a fascinating way of solving problems. Unlike most physicists, who find their solutions via mathematics, Tuzo solved problems almost entirely with visual images... To solve the problem of the origin of the Hawaiian Islands, for example, Wilson imagined someone lying on his back on the bottom of a shallow stream blowing bubbles to the surface through a straw. The bursting bubbles were the Hawaiian Islands and they lay in a line because they were swept along the surface by the moving stream. Thirty years later, leading geophysical theorists used super-computers to solve the horrendous equations involved that Tuzo "solved" in the visualizing region of his brain."

Jock also had an eye for colour and design, and took great pleasure in experiencing them. He frequently returned home from trips bearing new dresses bought for his little daughters, or dress lengths of silk or cotton from countries known for these fabrics for his wife, and daughters when they were older. On his own, he bought all of his wife's hats, in the days when women wore hats. He loved to go to the flower markets to pick out individual blooms of varying forms, texture and colour to form bouquets, which he presented to his wife or his hard-worked secretaries without need of an occasion. He delighted in choosing a different silk scarf, for example, for each of these ladies for Christmas.

What is remarkable is that Jock's ability to take good photographs seemed to have gone, if not unnoticed, at least totally unacknowledged by him and by everyone else in his lifetime. He himself seemed to have viewed his photographs only as records, either data for research or happy reminders of the diversity and wonder of this world. He never discussed the artistic merits of his photos and would likely have found anyone else's discussion of them, though flattering, mystifying and unmanly.