Professor Emeritus John Ross Mackay (1915-2014)


Professor Emeritus John Ross Mackay, OC, FRSC, passed away on October 28, 2014.

Ross first came to the Department of Geology and Geography at UBC in 1949, and continued to teach following his retirement from the Department of Geography in 1980. Remembered with fondness and respect by his colleagues, Ross was widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on permafrost.


Born on the last day of 1915 in Formosa (Taiwan), Ross was the son and grandson of Canadian missionaries; he commanded an intelligence unit in Darwin, Australia, during World War II after completing his BA (1939) and MA (1941) at Clark University and Boston University respectively. Appointed an Assistant Professor at McGill in 1946 he completed his PhD at the University of Montreal (1949) before joining the fledgling UBC Geography Department.

In 1951 he began fieldwork in the western Arctic, an area then little known to science, interpreting aerial photographs and investigating periglacial features. This work evolved through the next half century – Ross conducted fieldwork in the Arctic almost every year until 2004 – but remained focused on the development of ice-wedge polygons, pingos, ground ice and other aspects of periglacial geomorphology. Well before his retirement Ross became widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on permafrost.

Ross published over 200 scholarly works, over 150 of which are single authored and more than half of which are in refereed journals. Fifty of the papers were published in Ross’s post-“retirement” years. Michael Church and Olav Slaymaker edited a festschrift Field and Theory published in 1985 that marks the revolutionary impact of Ross’s characteristic combination of careful field observation, experimental design, and analytical interpretation in moving physical geography toward an earth systems approach to understanding the behaviour of permafrost terrain.

Ross was President of the Canadian Association of Geographers (1953-54) and the Association of American Geographers (1969-70), and was Secretary-General of the International Permafrost Association for a decade after 1983. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981, and received the Massey, Miller, and Logan medals. In 1986 the King of Sweden presented him with the Vega Medal, awarded internationally every two years since 1880. Ross also received five honorary degrees.

His commitment to scholarship was truly impressive, and he is remembered with fondness and respect. The new Graduate Student lounge in the Geography Building is named in his honour.

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