Skip to main content Skip to local navigation

Passing: Professor Emeritus J. David Wood

Passing: Professor Emeritus J. David Wood

The Geography and EUC community at York was saddened to learn of the death of our colleague David Wood on October 15th 2022.

We are grateful to Glen Norcliffe for this account of David’s life and contributions. An obituary published in the Toronto Star is also available online.

J. David Wood (1934-2022)

Beginnings matter: often they matter a lot.  Born in 1934 in Galt, Ontario, David later moved with his family to Nova Scotia and then to Newfoundland so that by the time he enrolled at the University of Toronto he had a far better insight into Canada’s variegated geography than most.  And because his parents were officers in the Salvation Army, he inherited their values of social and environmental engagement.  Like many Salvationists, he was also taught as a child to play a brass instrument, a skill which gave him much pleasure 50 years later as he played trombone in Huronia’s orchestras and trad jazz bands.

As a BA and MA student at Toronto, David was drawn to student affairs at Hart House.  He played soccer at the U of T, an activity that he continued to do (barefoot) into his seventies at the York geography graduate student picnic held annually at his farm north of Toronto.  For many years – up to his eightieth year - he attended an annual long-weekend cross-country ski excursion to Algonquin Park where he sometimes led graduate students on a wolf howl. 

His doctorate examining the pioneer settlement by Europeans of Alberta’s Peace River District was completed at the University of Edinburgh under the supervision of Canada’s former Chief Geographer, Wreford Watson.  This led to a faculty position at the University of Alberta, where he met and married Mary, his wife for 50 years.

This was followed in 1965 by David’s appointment as the first geographer at York University’s Atkinson College which was devoted to adult education.  He was subsequently elected to York University’s Founders Honour Society for his work in creating this new department.  He continued to research the settlement of Canada, and also taught courses in environmental conservation.  One of his legendary exercises in pioneer settlement was to allocate 100 acre lots of secondary growth forest on a quiet concession road to groups of students, tell them the year was 1830, and give them a day to map out how they would settle “their farm”:  some city students never ventured more than a few feet from the concession road, such was their fear of the unknown.

This exercise in some ways mirrored David’s own life: in the 1980s he moved from Toronto’s suburbia and purchased a semi-abandoned 100-acre farm with its original log farmhouse overlooking the former Lake Nottawasaga, and with Mary created their own pioneer experience.  After the farmhouse was struck by lightning that sent a terrifying ball lightning from the wood stove across the living room, the family’s highest priority was a lightning conductor.  

David Wood lived with dementia and memory loss in his final years but was, by all accounts, happy, comfortable and as talkative as ever. He died peacefully on Saturday 15 October 2022 at the age of 88.  Several of his generation of Canadian historical geographers concentrated on researching the resettlement of Canada by Europeans.  His major contributions to this field include: 

  • (editor) Perspectives on landscape and settlement in nineteenth century Ontario (1975)
  • Making Ontario: agricultural colonization and landscape re-creation before the railway (2000)
  • Places of last resort: the expansion of the farm frontier into the boreal forest in Canada, c. 1910-1940 (2006)

In recognition of this important body of research into the resettlement of Canada, the University of Toronto’s Association of Geography Alumni awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award to David in 2010.  

The discipline’s main focus has since moved on to contemporary social issues, but we have a far better understanding of Canada in the nineteenth century due to the research and teaching of David Wood.

Glen Norcliffe

York University

Donations in memory of David Wood can be made to support the Friends of York Geography Fund by using the link below: