Biography: T. Joseph Scanlon

Professor T. Joseph Scanlon, a veteran journalist and esteemed journalism professor who became equally accomplished as an internationally recognized disaster scholar, died in May 2015.

Professor Scanlon’s career in disaster research spanned close to five decades. Born in Ottawa, he attended Carleton University and graduated with the Gold Medal for Journalism. He then earned a Master in Arts (Politics) at Queens, but declined a doctoral fellowship to pursue journalism.

Among other posts, he served as the Parliamentary and Washington correspondents for the Toronto Daily Star before turning to full-time teaching. Already an established lecturer, in 1966 he joined the permanent faculty of the Carleton University School of Journalism (later renamed the School of Journalism and Communication). He served as its director from 1966 to 1973.

In 1970, he became interested in the study of rumours, or how information passes from person to person. This soon evolved into the study of crises, from hostage takings to earthquakes, and from forest fires to airplane crashes. His research was done by using what are called snowball samples, which means starting with a small random sample then expanding the interview base by tracing the flow of information across a community.

This innovative approach to research led to funding from the Operations Research Establishment of Canada’s Defence Research Board and later from Public Safety Canada. For nearly 20 years, Professor Scanlon organized and ran a field research team–Carleton’s Emergency Communications Research Unit–that responded to emergency incidents in Canada and documented what happened using questionnaires.

The resulting body of research and publications was the foundation from a prolific career as a disaster researcher, lecturer, and consultant in Canada and around the world, in parallel to his journalism career. Among other accomplishments, in 1987-88 he was Visiting Professor at the Disaster Research Center, Department of Sociology, University of Delaware.

 In 1994, he was elected President of the International Research Committee for Disasters Research, International Sociological Association. In 1995, on retirement from Carleton University, he was appointed Professor Emeritus. In 1996, he became general editor of a series of six books on disaster sponsored by the Research Committee. In 2002, he received the Charles Fritz award for a lifetime contribution to the Sociology of Disaster.

Professor Scanlon’s papers, including the transcript for an unpublished book on the Halifax explosion, are now part of the Enrico (Henry) L. Quarantelli collection at the Disaster Research Centre (DRC), University of Delaware. He made an indelible to contribution to the study of disasters and his death was strongly felt across the disaster research community.


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