In Memoriam: Robert (John) Gibson


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of retiree Robert (John) Gibson on May 7.  He was 85.

Born in Bombay, India, on February 3, 1931, to Major R.B. Gibson and Kathleen Gibson, John was sent to St. Peter’s preparatory school in York, England, at the height of WW II. He considered himself Irish, like his father and grandparents on both sides.

John earned the top prize in science at St. Peter’s and went on to Trinity College, Dublin. In 1958 he left Irish soil and crossed the ocean, landing first in Montreal and shortly thereafter at the Atlantic Biological Station in St. Andrews, NB. There he met and later married Judy Maclellan.

Earning a Master’s thesis at the University of Western Ontario, John moved the family to Manitoba for five years’ work before embarking on his PhD at the University of Waterloo.

John was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at WHOI in 1973 in the Biology Department.  In 1974, he was promoted to assistant scientist.  John spent 10 consecutive summers as researcher and director of WHOIs remote field station at the mouth of the Matamek River (Quebec). He left WHOI in 1978.

In 1979 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had the good luck to secure John as a leading salmon research scientist. His stream tanks and extensive (often hilarious) exploits in the field are legendary. A prolific author, John published more than ninety research papers, book chapters and reports, and 2016 marked his 52 successive year of publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.


He was a passionate proponent of regional and global efforts to remove hydroelectric dams and restore natural ecological systems, and was honored with all four conservation awards in Newfoundland: the Gunter Behr Award, Tuck Walters Award, the provincial environmental award and the Lifetime Achievement Award.

A passionate outdoorsman, John rowed, swam, cycled, hiked, skated, and skied until the age of 83. All-Ireland swimming champion (breaststroke) in the 1950s, he also won trophies at Henley and in other rowing regattas in England and Ireland, and in his late 60s cycled around Ireland with old friend Tony Wilson (documented in the book The Universe on a Bicycle). He read classic and scientific literature, loved E.O. Wilson, and was immersed in Tim Flannery's Atmosphere of Hope at the time of his death.

In recent years John fought the closure of DFO science libraries and experimental lakes research. He regarded the loss of pristine lakes to mine tailings impoundments an unspeakable crime, serving in his eighties as chief witness in the (ultimately unsuccessful) case to save Sandy Pond. He was heartened by the prospect of environmental accountability under a new federal government.

John was brilliant, interesting, and joyful; most of all he was driven by love of nature to look after it. His inspiration lives on.

John is survived by Judy; daughters Caroline and Mary Jane; sister-in-law Ruth Gibson, Natascha and Tanya (and sons Michael, John and Charlie); beloved cousins Dorothy Fox (Niall) and Enid Crush (Phil); David Fox, Sue and Laurence Burbidge, Mark, Ellen, Sean; and Ellen’s children Georgia and Vincent. Also sister-in-law Janet Toole, Rachel and Martin Huntly, Kaithan and Brhaen Baird, and Gordon Huntly; and many dear and lifelong friends in the UK, Ireland, Finland, Holland, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

A celebration of his life was held on Saturday, May 28, at John and Judy’s home in Newfoundland.

Information for this obituary is from John’s family.



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