Faculty of Science

Dr. William Fyfe Memorial

Fyfe memorial

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 23, 2014 family, friends and colleagues gathered within the Physics and Astronomy Building Atrium to celebrate the life of Dr. William Fyfe. The following speakers shared their stories of friendship and Dr. Fyfe's achievements.

Dr. W. Glen E. Caldwell
Professor Emeritus and former Vice-President Research, Western University

Dr. Fyfe’s remarkable career speaks to several ideals that he tried to observe, support, and promulgate at all times:  he believed
(1)    that science should be constrained as little as possible by disciplinary boundaries and not at all by political ones;
(2)    that science should be practised in a global laboratory in the sense of being as open and transparent as possible;  and
(3)    that more of science should be shown publicly to be a  contribution to better understanding of aspects of planet Earth and how it functions.
   In relation to the last, although Dr. Fyfe practised inter-disciplinary science himself, he was unapologetic about regarding one of his own disciplinary specializations -- that in geology – to be of primary importance.  How often did we hear him say:

          “It’s come down to this:  The Earth remains our only planetary home.  If
            we are going to live on it in this day and age, then it behooves us to
            know something about it and how it works, and to be consciousstewards of its preservation.”
And as each day goes by, I think more and more of us are coming to appreciate the wisdom underlying those words.

 *       *       *       *

Dr. Fyfe’s entry into cross-disciplinary science came early in his career when he read for double honours in chemistry and geology at the University of Otago in his native New Zealand.  A mere three years later, he had completed the requirements for both the M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry in the same university, working on some unusual rock-forming minerals.  By then he had published nine papers – an accomplishment much less remarkable today than it was in 1952 – but to my way of thinking quantity is of much lesser significance than quality and what impresses me much more is this:    all but one of these papers appeared in the highest ranks of international journals, two of them in Nature!

*       *        *        *
With his own interdisciplinary field of geochemistry thus established, he then turned to applying it to global issues during what may be described as his “American Period”.  Supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, he followed in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor from Otago, Francis John Turner, then head of the geology department in the University of California (Berkeley).   Frank Turner had set out to make Berkeley a leading post-World War II centre for geology with a series of brilliant faculty appointments (later , I might add, to include Dr. Fyfe).    An expert on metamorphic rocks himself, ‘Frank’ Turner had already teamed with Jean Verhoogen, an expert in thermodynamics, to produce in 1950 what became briefly the leading post-WWII textbook  on “Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology.”    What Fyfe took with him to Berkeley was something that, by their own admission, both Turner and Verhoogen lacked – an adequate understanding of the critical importance of chemistry in explaining the origin of these rocks.   With Dr. Fyfe, the triumvirate’s success is all too well known:  by 1958 they had published their well- known Memoir 73 of the Geological Society of America on “Metamorphic Reactions and  [as a new concept] Metamorphic Facies”, and this  as a follow-up to their revision -- as Fyfe, Turner, and Verhoogen -- of the earlier book by the two senior colleagues.   In short, a mere six years beyond the award of the doctorate, Dr. Fyfe  had played a crucial role in giving a new face to the study of two of the three main categories of rocks in the Earth’s crust!

*        *         *         *

Another important step in Dr. Fyfe’s international career came in 1966 with his ‘British Period’ -- appointment to the Royal Society Chair in Geochemistry at Manchester, with cross appointment to the Imperial College of Science and Technology of the University of London.  In the Manchester crucible of British experimental petrology, he added an impressive series of discoveries about magmas and melts that shed important light on the crystallization history of many different kinds of primary rocks.  it was at this time, In my own view, that he was at his most brilliant, engaging in a dazzling romp through many of the leading petrogenetic issues of the day, invariably adding his own key discoveries.  With the advent of plate-tectonic theory, for example, he discovered how to infer temperature gradients in subduction zones and explained the place and style-of-emplacement of granites in such settings.  He undertook what he himself regarded as some of his best work -- that in crystal-field theory and the geochemistry of the transition elements.   And by way of further illustrating the stunning diversity of his endeavours at this time, let me offer you two more contrasting  achievements:  first, he completed, with  some of his old Berkeley colleagues, the introductory text-book that  carries his evident imprimatur  in its simple title – The Earth -- and in the holistic approach that the book takes to its subject; and second,  he stepped beyond  the international arena into the extra-planetary one by accepting an invitation to describe, for the first of NASA’s  Apollo Lunar Conferences, the moon rocks obtained during the Apollo II Lunar Landing.

*        *       *       *

Dr. Fyfe’s third international period began in 1972 with his appointment to this university.  He came quickly to support local initiatives in economic mineral deposits, some of them highly original, such as that with Western’s distinguished microbiologist,  Dr. Robert Murray, on the role of bacteria in the concentration of these deposits, or that with Dr. Robert Kerrich on the genesis of Archæan gold.

With little delay, he had his impact on the Faculty of Science, using his own example to foster cross-disciplinary collaborations and then providing central analytical facilities to service several departments.  The creation of Surface Science Western would be an example.  In time, too, his impact spread to the University as a whole with the appointment of a senior administrative officer with special responsibility for co-ordinating International Development.

It was no different beyond the university.  Outside agencies were quick to seek his counsel.  The federal granting council, NSERC, enrolled him to advise them on the support of research, asking him to oversee both the chemical and earth-science grant-selection committees while doing so; and on one memorable Sunday afternoon, in a huge lecture theatre in the University of Ottawa, he achieved what none before him had done:  he welded Canada’s “three solitudes” of the earth-science community – those of the academic, public, and private sectors – into a single collaborating entity willing to undertake the national megaproject that came to be known as Lithoprobe.  Charged with unravelling, critical segment by segment, the evolution of the North American continental landmass, the project was internationally acclaimed in concept and product.

But if this period in Dr. Fyfe’s life was based in Canada, it remained international in the scope and purpose of his own researches, which came quickly to develop a special character of their own by becoming increasingly focussed on the survival of the planet as we know it, and how in terms of its inventory of natural resources we might support a human population of nine to ten billion.   Daringly conceived geochemical projects took on more than theoretical objectives:  they also held promise of a practical utility in the face of looming global crises.   For example, his study of the lateritic soils of the environmentally ultra-sensitive Amazon Basin of Brazil; his successful approach to treating degraded soils in India by combining two polluting wastes -- fly ash from coal-burning power plants and sewage from polluted rivers -- into one regenerative fertilizer;  and – in quite a different category -- his work on the disposal of high-level radioactive wastes, which he pursued, by invitation, under the flags of no fewer than four nations.  Among other things, this involved explaining the dangers involved to the Reeve of an Ontario township one week and to the President of France the next!
*       *        *        *

Dr. Fyfe’s list of honours and recognitions defies description in brief remarks of this kind    Many of his awards were listed in his official obituary, and what immediately impresses one about them is their high calibre and international scope.  In this connection, his election late in his career to the presidency of the International Union of Geological Sciences – a member of the Paris-based International Council of Science -- may be one of his broadest-based external commendations.  Nominated by Britain, he was unanimously chosen for the office.  This pleased him greatly, I know, and for many reasons, not least  than it afforded him an opportunity to promote internationally those ideals that I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks – the desirability of pursuing science unconstrained by political boundaries, for example.

*      *      *      *

Dr. Fyfe’s obituary ends with words to the effect that

“His was a life well lived”

 and I would like to end by picking up on that same point.  Indeed, “his was a life well lived” -- and we acknowledge that part of it brought added distinction to this university and further honour to this country.  But, as we who knew Bill Fyfe well, let us gladly acknowledge also that we are joined by a host of others in every continent and in many – perhaps most -- countries of the world who would salute him and thank him too for urging them to think more, in their own particular ways about “The Earth” -- that surprisingly fragile planet in which we all have a common stake.

Dr. John Zhou
Executive Director, Water and Environmental Management, Alberta Innovates Energy and Environmental Solutions

  • Thank you Dr. Longstaffe…
    Mrs. Fyfe, Dr. Dean, Ladies and Gentlemen,

    First of all, I want to say it is a great honor for me to speak today at this memorial service, and to share with you my fond memory of Dr. William S. Fyfe.

    I met Dr. Fyfe in the fall of 1983 when he was lecturing at the Chinese Academy of Geological Science in Tianjin.  His lecture was on the fluid movement in the Earth’s crust within the context of plate tectonics. Even with my limited capacity in English comprehension then, I was fascinated by his lecture. Six months later, I came to Canada to do my graduate study under Dr. Fyfe.

    Within a week of my arrival, Dr. Fyfe took me to a field trip in Northern Ontario with a few of his many graduate students. I quickly observed that Dr. Fyfe was the one who did the most driving, took the most samples, …told the most jokes, and… perhaps, don’t quote me on this because I am not so sure about it… drank the most wine. His mantra was “a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”. It was a fun-filled trip and I had the first beer in my life.

    On our way back from the field trip, we talked about potential topics for my graduate thesis. Dr. Fyfe was heavily into the geochemistry of nuclear waste disposal at the time. Many around the world were studying terrestrial disposal options. Dr. Fyfe suggested I should look at the geochemical stability of nuclear wastes in submarine environments for my thesis.  I knew some basic things about geochemistry but not much about nuclear waste disposal. However, I very quickly realized how much knowledge and insight were packed into such an elegant idea. The deep sea clay formations covers 30% of the sea floor, vertically and laterally uniform, with low permeability, high cation-retention capacity, and potentially self-sealing. In addition, as demonstrated in my thesis, nuclear waste glass would be chemically stable in the pore water of such sediments.

    I studied under Dr. Fyfe when he was very active internationally in environmental geochemistry and sustainability.  We were introduced to surface processes at molecular levels all the way to lithosphere-biosphere-hydrosphere interactions on geological scale. In particular, I remember a lecture series called Global Change, where Dr. Fyfe invited the world’s leading experts to give evening lectures at Western.  It was such a dynamic and fascinating learning environment. However, only decades later could I fully appreciate how far ahead Dr. Fyfe was for his time.  He had the insights Al Gore had in An Inconvenient Truth, but 20 years before the Vice President.  The students at the geology department at Western, from the mid-’80s to early ’90s, would all identify the striking similarities between Dr. Fyfe’s Global Change slides and Al Gore’s award-winning documentary.

    The education that Dr. Fyfe gave to me is not only the basic scientific knowledge and skills, but also the capacity to apply the knowledge and skills to address society’s challenges. In 1990, I started working at the Alberta Research Council. Dr. Fyfe asked me to join him to write an NSERC proposal.  The proposal was to study the reaction thermodynamics and kinetics between CO2 and mafic and ultramafic rocks. Even then, he was thinking of how to reduce CO2 emission from point sources.  However, the idea was too far ahead of its time and the proposal was predictably rejected by NSERC. Today, the idea of taking CO2 from point sources and then injecting it into saline aquifers is known as carbon capture and storage or CCS, and NSERC is funding many CCS research projects. In last few years, I have personally seen a number of proposals coming to me for research funding with the idea using mafic/ultramafic rock as CO2 storage host. Injecting CO2 into basalt was even in media announcements as “breakthrough” developments in CCS.

    As a leading thinker of his time, Dr. Fyfe’s contribution was far reaching well beyond his field of geochemistry and geology. Like Linus Pauling, he was not only a great scientist but also a great humanitarian.  Among others, Dr. Fyfe pondered on population growth, environmental sustainability, and resource conservation.  In the late ’80s, he developed the insight that the most effective way to control population growth was to provide education opportunities for women, especially those in developing countries. In 2011, former President Bill Clinton presented the same view that was widely reported in the mass media.  Our Bill was almost a quarter century ahead of President Bill in developing this insight.

    For many of us foreign students with different cultural and economic backgrounds, Dr. Fyfe was also a kind and caring human being. It was with his guidance, understanding, and acceptance that we managed through our graduate programs with our poor English.  It was with his kindness and caring nature, that our families got reunited in Canada. For me personally, it was with Dr. Fyfe’s support that I was able to bring my lovely wife to Canada. Shibing did her M.Sc. in Chemistry, co-supervised by Dr. Fyfe.  It was due partly to his reputation and his willingness to put that reputation behind us that we were able to settle in Canada and became contributing members of society, soon after our graduation. For many of us, he was not only a professor or thesis supervisor; he was also our “Uncle Bill”.

    Well, Dear Uncle and Dr. Fyfe, we will forever remember you!

Dr. Saugata Datta
Associate Professor, Kansas State University

  • Dr Longstaffe, Mrs Fyfe, Drs Dean and Chakma and Ladies and Gentlemen;

    This is a beautiful afternoon, cold but a pleasant ceremony for celebrating the life of a pleasant scientist, mentor, friend and a human soul – Bill Fyfe. I like to thank Fred personally who almost gave me  a heart attack like during his exam questions, over the phone asking self rating of my oratory skills. 13 years later I am still not of my oratory skills!  I just thought to myself, it might take no skills to speak in today’s occasion, because  it is dedicated to the most easy going person yet hugely successful person like Bill.

    What I remember of Bill, let me think….countless--- but!  three things I will never forget—having his trash can in his office on fire from his smoking pipe, or numerous de-glassing himself while  giving the most passionate talk, or scribbling some research  plans on a wine napkin inside a bar and telling me one on gone such occasions—“this is your project , here is the money and see you after three years”. I don’t know how else a student can get a heart attack when he listens to these things from his advisor. But Bill really meant it, I just reported to him from time to time and every time hearing the results he was very happy. Bill was the most encouraging person I met.

    Bill had the most charismatic figure. I remember the first time I saw him when I was a Masters student in India, and Peter Wyllie, Gerry Wasserberg (from CalTech) and Bill Fyfe (from Western) had, the three stalwarts those days, visited IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) India. We had an Indian Professor who literally guarded those three personages from being close to anyone, kind of honor guarding! Bill was the only one, kind of with that smile broke from the line, and came and asked us ‘bunch of students’ who were waiting to hear their speech, if we knew  if there  a bar nearby. Who knew possibly that same evening we would meet him in that same bar and more I would meet again at GAC MAC in Ottawa next year when I was in Queens U, from where he enthused me work with him!

    Bill was the most internationally dedicated scientist. We now talk about geomicrobiology, medical geology, biogeochemistry or even microbial geochemistry or even metal-microbe reactions – I think Bill’s students had more close affiliation even in those early days to these disciplines. He led the establishment of the Global Change program, a comprehensive international investigation of Earth’s life-support systems. His quest of geochemists’s views of the earth never stopped – it stretched from Au mineralization to landfill assessment, to coal ash management to geochemical cycle of uranium to solid earth geophysics to communicating the vital role that we as earth sciences play in society.

    Bill’s internationalization of earth system science ranged from understanding the ocean and sedimentation in relation to sea level rise in offshore Hong Kong, to understanding mineral deposits in Ouro Fino gold mine in Brazil and Jiaodong Gold Province in China, or ore fluid generation at Aljustrel, Portugal, to the origin of alkaline soils in the Indo-Gangetic plains of India, and many more.

    Bill was one of the scientists whose every view was respected in the international community. One thing I cannot stop mentioning that some of his ideas and thoughts, or excitements in his eyes THEN, have come out as major groundbreaking topics in the current days—we talk about CO2 sequestration today—Bill with one of our fellow PhDs, and my friend Richard, visiting the Basaltic caves in Hawaii, gets excited about how these cave mineral formations are showing processes of sequestering carbon.  Even this idea in early 90s take a tremendous turn and shape in today’s world with so much relevance.

    Having to write papers with Bill., after first few edits by Mike Powell I get ready to show the draft to Bill, every time I show him a different version comes up and he loves each of them, gets excited, add some more thoughts, jots down, I change again. After 4 times I believe, I got my act together and told “Bill, I am sending this tomorrow”—he looks at me through his piles of paper at his desk, and says, “may be you should change a few more things! “ The papers came out accepted without any major revisions!

    I could never call him Bill until I got my PhD. In my culture where I originally come from it is a sin to call your professor by name. He was Dr Fyfe to me through the entire time. He himself smiled a few times and asked me to call him by name. I was his last PhD student. He could not pronounce my first name, I was always Datta. Bill was the most student friendly mentor/supervisor I have met so far. He never was tired in writing many many reference letters for his students and took this job very seriously. Even at his late retired life, he thought a phone call works best to get us a job. He was fast in picking up the phone and calling our potential employers. And honestly it worked wonders! This is and many others I owe it to Bill Fyfe, my PhD advisor.

    And to end my thanks to Bill--- I miss those Christmas Fyfe Lunches, started off as lunch, never knew who took me home and what time!

    Thank you Bill, thanks to you from me and all your students worldwide!


Ms. Leslie Anne Landefeld
Consulting Geologist

  • The Heart and Mind of Bill Fyfe
    Fluids in the Earth's Crust, Tectonics and Ore Deposits (late 1970’s-1980’s)

    How can we paint a picture of such a giant of science as Bill Fyfe in a mere hour?  He was larger than life, filled with ideas, and driven to teach and make scientific contributions to society.   He was funny and irreverent, and almost always smoking.  Glen, John, and Saugata have painted a true likeness of Bill.  I will try to sketch what it was like to be a student of Bill's during a ground-breaking phase of his scientific life:  the time that he was researching, writing about, discussing and teaching about Fluids in the Earth's crust.  I am including recollections of fellow grad students in the 1980's, thanks to Larry Kennedy and others.

    Bill loved to think big.  The clarity if his ideas was beautiful, and the answers to questions lay in his exquisite details.  As described by Kennedy, "Bill was one of a kind in looking at the earth as a living laboratory, and in his ability to investigate it.  He used his geochemical and thermodynamic expertise to explain fundamental geologic processes, or propose "outrageous" hypotheses that, in retrospect, look self-evident.  Bill has an amazing ability to frame problems - to ask questions that could be answered, to identify where to look to test his ideas, such as [his work in] Troodos.”

    The 1980's were a stimulating time to be his student.  In 1978, Bill wrote the ground-breaking book, "Fluids in the Earth's Crust" with Neville Price and Alan Thompson.  It was exciting to be in his classes as he taught about fluids -- fluids in metamorphism, in hydrothermal systems, in forming melts, in pore water deep in the earth, in oceans and fresh water, and in the biosphere.  He researched and taught about the movement and concentration of metals during these processes.  He taught about the biogeochemical roles of bacteria and microbes, about rich soils and leached soils.  He used great imagery, "Imagine what happens to rocks when the volume of water of the Great Lakes moves through a volume of rock the size of Mt. Everest," or "that same volume (or vastly larger volumes) of sea water moving through the ocean crust."  He then described how the rocks changed.  Bill advised us to do interesting work.  Why do boring research?  And, perhaps more importantly, he taught us to not be afraid of being wrong.

    In the 1980's, Bill and many of us studied many different ore deposits, hydrothermal and metamorphic systems, some that had formed on the ocean floor or near or in subduction zones.  He made a point of showing his students examples in the field.  Bill would put together amazing field trips to look at fluids and tectonics in ancient subduction zones.  He would take us to look for rare, high pressure rocks, whether in his old stomping ground of northern California or in the Italian Alps, Portugal and Spain.  We would walk around the subduction zones in the Franciscan rocks in northern California, looking at blue schist, eclogite, melanges and serpentinite.  The field trips would have exciting moments, such as when we were met by a rancher with a shotgun, saying, "I don't want no geologists looking for (bleeping) eclogites on my ranch!"  Or the time that we stumbled upon a road rally in Pinerolo, Italy, with beautiful Italian women drivers walking around in their leathers after the race.  We would go look at the roots of subduction zones, such as the metamorphic rocks, mélanges and serpentinites of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California, and the Sierra Nevada batholith next door.  In addition to students, Bill would invite other scientists and their families, and the trips would be full of wonderful discussions.  
    Bill would bring cutting edge geologists, geochemists, microbiologists and other scientists to the department to present their recent work.  He created an exciting place to learn, think and work, bringing in students and scientists from around the world.  Bill inspired us into thinking far beyond our own research and learning.  He held an annual graduate student lunch, in which we would present informal summaries of our work or recent breakthroughs.  He would wrap up the lunch with a question such as "What will YOUR contribution be to humanity (or to science)?"  He had started his shift toward lessening human impact on the earth—one of his biggest gifts to us all.

    Bill had an intensely curious mind and was keenly observant.  He was the consummate multidisciplinary scientist, thinking at all scales -- from molecular processes to global systems.   Bill was equally at ease in the lab, in the field or at the microscope.  He was always asking and posing questions, pipe in hand, quick to smile or laugh.  He worked with each student, helping to frame questions in the right way.  He would discuss ways to test hypotheses with his students.   Quick to make connections in a creative way, Bill was not bound by the hypotheses or dogma of others.

    These next two anecdotes are from one of Bill’s Ph.D. students, Larry Kennedy.   Happily, Bill could identify questions that might be unanswerable.  After some discussion about how we could model isotopic fractionation in liquids based on the Soret effect, he said, "You know, it's really easy to run a bad experiment -- and, this has the makings of one."

    Bill admired great scientists.  And, he despised bad science.  He told of how, as a young postdoc at CalTech, he was advised to "run [a problem] by Linus Pauling" to see what he thought.  Bill said that his conversation with the Nobel prize-winner was one of his most memorable experiences.  Pauling told Bill that he meditated on a model --his own model--of the DNA double helix in his office every day.  He second-guessed himself and blamed himself for letting Watson and Crick beat him to the punch.

    Bill was funny and great fun to be around.  He was always a Kiwi--irreverent and full of wonderful expressions.  On the field trips, he would have us get up at "sparrow faht,"a Kiwi expression for the first birdsong at pre-dawn.  His office was legend:  books, piles of  papers, and manuscripts filled shelves, covered his desk and tables.  It was the home of one of the brightest minds and one of the greatest teachers to grace this planet. And, he could generally find what he needed right away.

    I would like to pay homage to two great women in his life:  First, wonderful Pat, with a mind to match Bill’s, and who tolerated Bill's constant travel.  Pat, I believe, was the glue that kept him together.  Second, his mom, who, Bill said in a quiet moment of reflection, fostered Bill's spark of curiosity, inquiry and perseverance.

    What an honor and privilege, and a genuine hoot, it was to spend time with Bill.  Thank you for sharing all your gifts, Bill.

Mrs. Patricia Fyfe received a special commerative book containing remembrances of past students, faculty and friends as well as photographs of Dr. Fyfe during his rich and varied career. You may view the contents of the book here.

During the reception, a slideshow video depicting different stages of Dr. Fyfe's life played on widescreen monitors within the atrium, a version of which may be seen below:

Biographical Sketch of Dr. Fyfe