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Professor emeritus Derek York (1936-2007) was born on August 12, 1936 in Normanton, Yorkshire, England. He attended Oxford University, graduating with a B.A. in Physics in 1957 and a PhD in Earth Science in 1960. During his time as a graduate student, York worked with physicist Ken Mayne to establish the first potassium-argon lab in the UK. In his final year of graduate school, York met distinguished Toronto physicist Tuzo Wilson at a departmental colloquium. The meeting clearly had an impact on York as he joined the University of Toronto physics faculty later that year as a Lecturer, moving to Assistant Professor in 1962, Associate Professor in 1966, and full Professor in 1972. Prof. York also acted as chair of the department for a time (1992-1997) and held the inaugural J. Tuzo Wilson Professor of Geophysics position from 1995-2000.
Prof. York’s research focused primarily on potassium-argon dating, thermochronometry, meteoroid impact dating, and the chronology of human evolution. During his time at U of T, the U of T Geochronology lab became known as a leader in the field of 40Ar/39Ar potassium-argon dating. It was at this lab that Prof. York and his colleagues first used lasers to extract argon from samples in the 1980s. Their later development of one of the world’s first extraction lines which enabled data to be collected over the course of a 24 hour day, along with the use of a gas purification system, mass spectrometer, and unattended operation of the laser changed the way Prof. York and his colleagues worked, allowing them to focus their energies on more creative ideas.
In addition to his research activities, Prof. York also taught several courses in physics and geophysics and sat on various committees during his time at U of T. Many of his students went on to establish 40Ar/39Ar labs around the world. In terms of committees, Prof. York sat on several, both as chairman and member. These committees included: Welsh Lectures in Physics Committee (1979-1982), Department Council, Department of Physics, University of Toronto (1980-1981), University of Toronto Research Board (1984-1985), Graduate Students Admissions Committee (1988-1991), and the University Grievance Committee.
Outside of U of T, Prof. York participated in several committees and professional associations, including the NRC Sub-Committee for Isotope Studies and Geochronology (acting as Chairman from 1967-1973) and the NRC Associate Committee for Geodesy and Geophysics (1970-1973). He was also the foreign principle investigator for NASA during the Apollo missions to the moon. In addition to the numerous articles Prof. York authored or co-authored, he also wrote several books, including The Earth’s Age and Geochronology with R.M. Farquhar and In Search of Lost Time (published in 1997). These books, along with his 70+ articles in The Globe and Mail, ensured that Prof. York was a sought after expert in his field.
Over the course of his career, Prof. York’s work won him numerous awards and honours. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1985), the American Geophysical Union (1995), and the Geochemical Society and the European Association for Geochemistry (1997). In addition to this, Prof. York received the Past President’s Medal of the Geological Association of Canada (1985), the Bancroft Award of the Royal Society of Canada (1986), the Sandford Fleming Medal of the Royal Canadian Institute (1996), and the Canadian Association of Physicists’ Lifetime Achievement Award (2005). Prof. York passed away on August 9, 2007 and is survived by his wife Lydia and son Link.