Bill Petrie

Bill Petrie

Renaissance man fueled by passion in things great and small

When Bill Petrie wasn't studying the aurora borealis, he was writing books on orchids. When he wasn't contributing his talents to the Defence Research Board of Canada, he was investigating global warming and alternative energy. What didn't the man do?

He never gave up.

Bill was born in 1912 Victoria, son to a bass singer father. From early on, he fell in love with creating music, a joy that was further cultivated by his high school principal, Ira Dilworth. Mr. Dilworth was a concert pianist and though his work with Bill didn't produce musical prodigy, it did yield a deep appreciation for classical music that Bill carried with him throughout his life.

Bill's first life in Victoria ended after he completed his time at Victoria College where he was President of the Student's Council. He then went to the University of British Columbia for his BA in math and physics. Unleashing his ambition, Bill moved his genius on to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he completed his PhD.

After swapping coasts again, he began climbing the ladder of his teaching career at UBC, advancing up the rungs after WWII at the University of Manitoba and the University of Saskatchewan. His success was mirrored in his research career with the Defence Research Board where he moved through several senior positions before occupying the roles of Deputy Chairman and Chief of the Canadian Defence Research Staff in London, England. In the 1950s, he served as Canadian Chairman of the Canada-US Scientific Advisory Team on air defence.

Bill hardly gave anything up when he retired in 1971. He brought his wife of then nearly thirty years back to Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula where they worked together on the mysteries of the aurora borealis: he using his expertise in spectroscopy, she illustrating his publication. He explored alternative energy sources, military technology, constitutional and environmental issues and combined his love of photography with orchids to produce the Guide to Orchids of North America. He was also active on many boards and committees including with the NATO laboratory in La Spetzia, Italy.

For his work, Bill was bestowed with many honours including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Centennial Medal. But his long life of 100 years wasn't fuelled by accolades; it was fuelled by a deep curiosity for the spectacular world around him and the joy it gave him. He took pleasure both from his internationally influential work and from his simple hobbies like gardening.

Jonathan Bengtson, University Librarian

Jonathan Bengtson, University Librarian


It was with this appreciation that he left a gift to the University of Victoria's Libraries through a bequest in his Will. “UVic Libraries would not be the vibrant heart of the campus without the vision and support of individuals like Dr. Petrie,” Jonathan Bengtson, University Librarian, says gratefully. Reflecting Bill’s intentions, Jonathan reiterates, “His gift will provide a legacy that successive generations of students at UVic will benefit from.”

For more information on donating to UVic, please contact or 250-721-8967.