Timothy R. Parsons – Obituary for the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Professor Timothy (Tim) R. Parsons (OC, FSRC) passed away in hospital on April 11, 2022, in the company of his family. Tim was one of Canada’s most eminent marine scientists and recipient of many national and international awards and honours.
He was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on November 1, 1932. When his father passed away suddenly, the family returned to England where Tim spent his childhood and completed his early school education at Christ’s Hospital, a public school. In 1949 at age 16, he travelled alone to take up a scholarship in agricultural studies at Macdonald College, part of McGill University. After receiving a B.Sc., he moved to McGill’s Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine and completed his Ph.D. in 1958. His first employment was as a research scientist at the Pacific Biological Station (PBS) in Nanaimo. While in Nanaimo, Tim and his good friend and colleague Dr. John Strickland helped set the newly emerging field of oceanography on solid ground with A Manual of Sea Water Analysis (Bulletin 125 of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada) in 1960 and subsequent (and expanded) editions in 1968 and 1984. These publications were the primary reference volumes in oceanographic laboratories around the world for more than 30 years. This effort in standardizing robust analytical techniques ensured that measurements of ocean parameters could be compared and contrasted across laboratories and oceans, something that was critical in the understanding of how the ocean works. While at PBS, Tim and co-workers pioneered studies on ocean ecosystems and how they impacted fish and fisheries. Their work included detailed observations of the chemistry, plankton and juvenile salmon in the Strait of Georgia and Saanich Inlet, observations at Ocean Station PAPA (the longest time-series of open ocean measurements in the world) and a Trans-Pacific transect to Japan. It also included the pioneering work with marine mesocosms to bridge the competing challenges of the controlled experiment and the study of whole ecosystems.
Tim took a leave of absence from 1962 to 1964 and moved with his family to take up a position at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This gave Tim a first-hand appreciation of the many challenges in building global science collaboration within a large bureaucracy.
On his return to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Tim and his colleagues put their understanding of lower trophic level dynamics and how they influence fish into practical use with the fertilization of nutrient-poor Great Central Lake on Vancouver Island to increase the size and success of sockeye salmon smolts entering the ocean. The DFO lake fertilization program continues to this day.
In 1971, Tim was appointed to joint positions in the Departments of Zoology and Oceanography at the University of British Columbia. While at UBC, he was a key member of a large US National Science Foundation-funded project to research the impacts of low levels of pollution on entire marine ecosystems using very large floating enclosures (mesocosms) in Saanich Inlet, B.C., operating from the site of the newly created Institute of Ocean Sciences. This was an international science project organized as part of the International Decade of Ocean Exploration.
During his time at UBC, Tim mentored, supported, and inspired many students and colleagues in Canada and around the world. Many of these students have had long and successful careers in Fisheries and Oceans Canada and elsewhere. Tim was very proactive in building and sustaining collaborations between academic and government science. There was not always a lot of institutional support for this, but that did not deter Tim. In retrospect, it is clear that all parties (as well as the science) benefited.
Tim also co-authored some classic textbooks in biological oceanography with versions for both undergraduate and graduate students. In 1997, Tim and Dr. Masayuki (Mac) Takahashi wrote Biological Oceanographic Processes. This was a popular textbook for graduate students, physical oceanographers, engineers, hydrologists, fisheries experts, and a number of other professionals who require quantitative expressions of biological oceanographic phenomena that has withstood the test of time. This volume was later revised and expanded to include benthic ecosystems with the addition of author Barry Hargrave. With his wife and colleague Carol Lalli (also an oceanographer), he wrote Biological Oceanography: An Introduction. This popular undergraduate textbook was produced for the Open University, a large British public university with many overseas students, ensuring a wide distribution. It was subsequently translated into the Japanese and Chinese languages.
In 1979, Tim was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada for his contributions. In 1989, Tim was awarded the J. P. Tully Medal in Oceanography from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society which is given to a “person whose scientific contributions have had a significant impact on Canadian oceanography”.
Tim retired from UBC in 1992 and relocated to Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island. He became an Honorary Emeritus Scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences where he continued to play an active role supporting, encouraging and occasionally challenging (as befits an Emeritus Scientist) DFO science staff at all levels. Tim and his wife Carol travelled extensively, teaching in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, Malaysia, Chile, and Japan. He continued his career-long emphasis on a holistic view of marine ecosystems and the importance of getting out to sea and making high-quality observations from research ships, commercial vessels of opportunity and other means. In 1993, he was awarded the G.E. Hutchinson Award by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) “in recognition of his achievements in combining chemistry with biology to make the ocean’s ecology more predictable”. In 1999, he was awarded the Murray A. Newman Award for “significant achievement in aquatic research” by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. In 2001, Tim was the first Canadian to be named as a laureate of the Japan Prize (Japan’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize) for “contributions to the development of fisheries oceanography and for conservation of fisheries resources and the marine environment”. Tim was awarded honorary degrees by Hokkaido University (Japan), the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. In 2005, Tim was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Also In 2005, Fisheries and Oceans Canada established the Timothy R. Parsons Medal to recognize “distinguished accomplishments in multidisciplinary facets of ocean sciences while working for Canadian Institutions or for the benefit of Canadian science”. Tim was the first recipient of this medal. Despite a busy life in science, Tim also was able to develop his diverse interests in poetry, tennis, carving, bridge and, in his younger years, hiking, skiing and the tango. He also found the time to record his life in The Sea’s Enthrall; Memoirs of an Oceanographer which was published in 2004.
Tim was also active and influential in the development of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES) and the early years of the organization. Tim was a member of the PICES BIO Committee from its founding in 1992 to 1996 and gave the Keynote Lecture at the PICES Fifth Annual Meeting (PICES-1996) in Nanaimo, Canada. To mark the tenth anniversary of PICES in 2001, the Science Board Symposium topic was “Ten years of PICES science: Decadal-scale scientific progress and prognosis for a regime shift in scientific approach”. Tim was invited and gave an overview on “Future needs for biological oceanographic studies in the Pacific Ocean”, with a critical and thought-provoking commentary on the maturity of biological oceanography as a branch of the marine sciences, and what is needed to help it to mature further.
Measuring a lifetime of contributions for a scientist is a complex task. The usual approach is to count the number of scientific articles and books published. By this measure Tim was a prolific scientist, but this is only part of the story. It is also important to consider the impact that a scientist has had on the evolution of his field through mentoring and encouragement of students, co-workers and collaborators. When these measures are considered, Tim’s influence has been immense. Many people will be mourning his passing while at the same time, many people, encouraged by Tim personally or through his published works, will also be continuing to explore, measure, integrate and analyze the ocean and its ecosystems in just the way Tim would have encouraged.