Wyllie is an internationally known authority on the formation of igneous rocks—those created when molten material solidifies. His research covered experimental petrology of magmas and volatiles. He was particularly involved in studying the origin of lavas like those erupted from Mount St. Helens in 1980; granites that form the core of mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevada; kimberlites, which transport diamonds to the earth's surface; and carbonatites, peculiar igneous rocks that look like limestones and contain useful mineral resources.
In 1948, Wyllie joined the Royal Air Force. It was there that he pursued the sport of boxing, and earned the title of 1949 Royal Air Force (Scotland) heavyweight boxing champion.
After serving in the armed forces, Wyllie attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he earned his BSc in geology and physics in 1952.
Later in 1952, Wyllie drove a team of huskies through the frozen, unexplored mountains in Dronning Louise Land, serving as an assistant field geologist with the British North Greenland Expedition. For two years, from 1952 to 1954, including two long, dark winters without sunlight, expedition members were isolated in the frigid arctic. For his role in the expedition, Wyllie received the Polar Medal from Queen Elizabeth. He then returned to the University of St. Andrews, earning his PhD in geology in 1958.
Wyllie has taught at the University of St. Andrews, Penn State, and Leeds University in England. He was department chair at the University of Chicago prior to joining Caltech in 1983 as chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. In 1987, Wyllie returned to teaching and research, then was appointed division academic officer in 1994. He served in this capacity until his retirement in 1999.
He has served as president of the Mineralogical Society of America, the International Mineralogical Association, and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. Wyllie has been elected as fellow or foreign member of seven national science academies, in the United States, the United Kingdom (Royal Society), Russia, China, India (Delhi and Allahabad), and Europe.
The author of three books, including two basic textbooks, Wyllie has published more than 300 scientific articles. He was chairman of the U.S. National Academy committee that published the first national disciplinary survey of earth sciences in 1993, Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. This volume was described by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Gordon Eaton, as "a road map for the future of our science that should and will guide significant decisions concerning strategic planning for and funding in support of research, as well as long needed and overdue revisions of Earth-science curricula across the nation."
Wyllie has received numerous distinguished honors and awards throughout his career, including the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1982, and the Abraham-Gottlob-Werner Medaille of the German Mineralogical Society in 1987.
The Roebling Medal, established in 1937 by the Mineralogical Society of America, signifies the highest recognition of achievement mineralogy can bestow. The Mineralogical Society of America was founded in 1919 for the advancement of mineralogy, crystallography, geochemistry, and petrology, and for the promotion of their uses in other sciences, industry, and the arts. It encourages fundamental research about natural materials; supports the teaching of mineralogical concepts and procedures to students of mineralogy and related sciences; and attempts to raise the scientific literacy of society with respect to issues involving mineralogy. The society encourages the general preservation of mineral collections, displays, mineral localities, type minerals, and scientific data.
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