Faculty of Science

The Western Science Community Celebrates the Life of Dr. William Sefton Fyfe

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Born on a small family sheep farm on the South Island of New Zealand, Dr. William Sefton Fyfe was the first student from his one-room school in New Zealand to attend university. He received his BSc in 1948 from Otago University, New Zealand, followed by his MSc (1949) and PhD (1952). A geologist, past Chair of the Department of Earth Sciences and former Dean of Western Science (1986-90), Dr. Fyfe was among the world’s most eminent geochemists and a leader in Canada’s scientific community.

A Fellow of the Royal Society (1969) and the Royal Society of Canada (1969), Dr. Fyfe was recognized for the depth and breadth of his contribution to the global scientific community throughout his illustrious career. In 1981, he was awarded the Geological Association of Canada's highest honour, the Logan Medal, the Royal Society of Canada's Willet G. Miller Medal (1985) and in 1989 was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Over the next decades, he was honoured by eight universities spanning three continents. A recipient of the Geological Society of America's Arthur L. Day Medal (1990) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering (1992), Dr. Fyfe was also awarded, among others, the Roebling Medal by the Mineralogical Society of America (1995) and Wollaston Medal, the highest award granted by the Geological Society of London in 2000.

To William Fyfe, boundaries between departments, people and ideas were unacceptable impediments to intellectual growth and opportunities to move the innovation enterprise forward. Undaunted by conventional thinking and exceptionally intuitive, according to Professor Emeritus, Robert Hodder, “Bill was very aware of the need for cross-discipline experiences and he actively promoted this cross-fertilization by bringing together the Departments of Geology, Physics and Chemistry through a joint venture called Surface Science Western”. His understanding of the critical nature and value of human interaction and gentle guidance changed the course of research strategy at Western Science.

To his students, Professor Fyfe was a visionary and a man who cared deeply for people. Robin Goad, a Western alumnus, reminisced that “one of Bill’s most endearing traits was his particular interest in his students, which he felt, as a professor that he should learn from – an interesting paradox”. He recognized talent from across the globe and “attracted graduate students in unorthodox ways based on his belief that everyone has the power within them to succeed given the chance – and he was happy to take that chance,” according to Michael Powell, one of many former students who speak of their revered mentor with a level of respect and awe reserved for the few throughout history who gave of themselves and accepted their gifts with grace and humility.

Dr. Fyfe’s recent passing leaves a not-soon-to-be-filled void in the Earth Science community. His memory will be preserved in the many gifts of knowledge and opportunity shared, over the course of more than four decades, with his students and fellow scientists.
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More on Dr. Fyfe may be found at the Department of Earth Sciences website.