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Massey Medal

2002 Winner - Dr. John Oliver Wheeler

John Wheeler (Photo: Peter Bennett)

The Mountain Mapper
John Wheeler’s passion for mapping and the mountains runs deep in his blood. Not only did his father participate in the first topographical survey of Mount Everest in 1921, but his grandfather, a founder and first president of the Alpine Club of Canada, mapped British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains in 1901 and the B.C.-Alberta border from 1913 to 1925. During his career, Wheeler himself surveyed the geology of 100,000 square kilometres of Western Canada, including the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountains and the Selkirks in B.C. — an expanse that’s about one and a half times the area of New Brunswick.

"I had it in the genes," jokes the 77-year-old geologist. "I enjoyed the physical challenge and beauty of working in the mountains."

Wheeler is recognized nationally and internationally for his extensive knowledge of Canada’s geology. His contributions to the understanding of the earth sciences have earned him the 2002 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in the field of Canadian geography. The award, established by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, is administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

When asked about the highlights of his 39 years with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in Vancouver and Ottawa, Wheeler immediately recalled his earlier years of surveying in the Yukon’s Selwyn Mountains. "We call those days ‘the heroic days,’" he says. It was 1952, and Wheeler and his colleagues studied the rugged terrain by foot and pack horse — the last exploration trip of its kind. They relied on a rough collage of aerial photos to guide them; topographical maps of the area were not yet available.

(Courtesy of Geological Survey of Canada/Natural Resources Canada)
Wheeler’s field expertise served him well as the chief compiler of the most recent edition of the Geological Map of Canada (left) and as the Canadian contributor to the Geological Map of the World. In the early 1980s, he also helped launch Lithoprobe, an ambitious 20-year project to map transects of various areas across the North American continent. Since retiring in 1990, he has continued to work as an emeritus research scientist at the GSC and is now putting the finishing touches on the Geological Map of North America.

"He is the epitome of what a scientist should be," says geologist Catherine Hickson, head of the GSC’s Vancouver subdivision, who has worked with Wheeler for 21 years. "He is incredibly ethical, very professional, and he has a very sharp mind. He can take complex issues and digest them and move the science forward."

— Monique Roy-Sole

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