Fyfe, William S. (earth scientist)

(1927- ) New Zealander Geochemist

A summary of the accomplishments of William Fyfe in his geological career is very simple: he has done virtually everything and he has done it well. Originally, he was an experimental geochemist who was interested in problems of metamorphic petrology. Innovative techniques to conduct dehydration chemical reactions allowed him to define the formerly enigmatic appearance of the zeolite minerals. This research allowed him to define a new metamorphic facies (zeolite facies) that now appears in every petrology and introductory physical geology textbook. But he was not satisfied with considering only the low-temperature side of metamorphism, he also studied partial melting dynamics in the granulite facies within Archean crust and high-pressure metamorphic rocks from the subduction zone complex in the Franciscan rocks of California. He was also interested in the formation of metal complexes and especially that of gold in hot fluid systems. This work truly revolutionized the field of hydrothermal systems and fluid flow, especially within fault zones, and also with regard to ore genesis. He pioneered the application of crystal field theory to the partitioning of trace elements among minerals. He also defined the application of stable isotope techniques to metamorphic problems among many other studies. These interests led him to write several classic memoirs and textbooks on the subjects including Metamorphic Reactions and Metamorphic Facies, Geochemistry of Solids, and Fluids in the Earth’s Crust. He clearly established himself as one of the foremost authorities on metamorphism and perhaps the foremost authority on hydrothermal processes.

Later in his career, Fyfe became interested in environmental problems and he was no less productive in those studies. He pursued such topics as iron sulfide contents of coal from Ohio and its contribution to acidity in the environment, methods to determine soil erosion in the Arctic using smectite clay mineralogy, improvement of the crop potential of tropical laterite soils using geochemistry, manganese oxide precipitation on microbial mats within hot springs, the geochemistry of supratidal sediments in the Niger Delta, Africa, and many others in the general field of biogeochemistry. These studies are generally environmental and led Fyfe to become an outspoken advocate for science in the addressing of world problems. His research helped him to give sound advice on agricultural and environmental geochemistry, deep waste disposal, resource conservation, global climate changes, and assistance to Third World countries. In recognition of his untiring efforts in education and advocacy for a stronger role on the part of humankind in stewardship of the Earth, Fyfe was awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian award. Truly, the accomplishments of William Fyfe comprise several successful careers.

William Fyfe was born on June 4, 1927, in Ashburton, New Zealand. He attended Otago University, New Zealand, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in geology in 1948, a master of science degree in 1949, and a Ph.D. in 1952. From 1952 to 1954, he was a Fulbright Scholar in geology at the University of California at Berkeley. He had his first academic position at the University of California at Los Angeles for one year before moving back to Otago University as a reader in chemistry (1955-1958), and finally back to the University of California at Berkeley as a faculty member. In 1968, Fyfe was the recipient of a Royal Society Research Professorship in geochemistry at Manchester University in England. He was also a visiting professor at Imperial College in London, England. In 1972, he joined the faculty at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, in London as chair of the department, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was appointed dean of the faculty of science there from 1986 to 1990 and he is currently a professor emeritus. William Fyfe married Patricia Walker in 1981, and they have three children.

William Fyfe has led a phenomenally productive career. His tally of professional publications numbers in the vicinity of 800. He was typically an author of 30 or more books and articles per year. Many of these publications are benchmark studies on everything from hydrothermal meta-morphism to the formation of soils. Fyfe received numerous honors and awards in recognition of his research contributions to the science. He was awarded six honorary doctoral degrees from colleges worldwide, including Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada; University of Lisbon, Spain; Lakehead University, England; and Otago University, New Zealand, among others. He is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of New Zealand. He received the Logan Medal from the Geological Association of Canada, the Willet G. Miller Medal from the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Commemorative Medal, the Arthur Holmes Medal from the European Union of Geological Scientists, the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America, the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America, the Canadian Gold Medal for Science and Engineering from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, the Queen’s New Zealand Commemorative Medal, the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, the Sri-brnou Medaili from the Czech Republic, and the Medal of the National Order of Scientific Merit from the country of Brazil, among many others.

Fyfe performed service to the profession too extensive to list here. His latest position was that of president of the International Union of Geological Scientists (IUGS) (1992 to 1996), where he has been especially active. He has served on dozens of important committees for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, commonly as chair. He also served in an editorial capacity for several international journals, including Chemical Geology, Environmental Geophysics and Geochemistry, Geology, and Mineral Science and Engineering, among others.

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