A Tribute to Dr. John Spencer MacDonald (1936-2019)

Dr. John S. MacDonald. Photo taken on May 21, 2007.

The IEEE Vancouver Section mourns the passing of Dr. John Spencer MacDonald, a technology visionary, entrepreneur and a key figure in the establishment of B.C.’s high tech industry. Dr. MacDonald’s legacy will continue to touch the lives of people in the high tech industry for decades to come.

In a life full of accomplishments, one of Dr. MacDonald’s most notable achievements was the co-founding of  MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) in 1968. Dr. MacDonald served as MDA’s CEO and President until 1982, and as Chairman of the Board from that point until 1998. Under his leadership, the company achieved several incredible technological milestones. After entering the aerospace industry in the early ’70s, MDA pioneered the design of a low-cost satellite ground station that could fit in a 40-foot trailer. Then in 1978, MDA became the first company to digitally reconstruct a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) image downlinked from a satellite. The IEEE recognized this engineering achievement with a Milestone Award in 2014 (click here for more information). MDA would later be credited with the design and manufacturing of the Canadarm and Canadarm 2 on the International Space Station. A number of highly successful spin-off companies, including Mobile Data International (MDI, later Motorola Mobile Data Division) and Creo (later Kodak Vancouver) were produced by MDA.

Dr. MacDonald was awarded an IEEE Centennial Medal in 1984, 100 years after the creation of the IEEE. Only 1984 of these medals were awarded globally to “persons deserving of special recognition for extraordinary achievement”.

The IEEE Vancouver Section awarded Dr. MacDonald with a Vancouver Section Centennial Award in 2011, as part of the Centennial Anniversary of the Section. Dr. MacDonald was named a Fellow of the IEEE – an honor bestowed upon a select few members with extraordinary accomplishments.

Outside of the IEEE, Dr. MacDonald was an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering.

In addition to his many achievements in the high tech industry, Dr. MacDonald will be fondly remembered for his kindheartedness and caring spirit. At the 2019 UBC Electrical Engineering Class of 1959 Reunion, Dr. MacDonald recalled that one of his motivations for co-founding MDA was to create a company where new engineering graduates could work. This demonstrates Dr. MacDonald’s support not only for the engineering profession but also for the individual engineers who have had the privilege of starting their careers at MDA.

Dr. MacDonald is survived by his beloved wife Alfredette who supported him throughout his many endeavors, two sons Neil and Jay, and three grandchildren: Lochlann, Tyne, and Tristan.

Formal memorial announcement and condolences may be found here. For more details about Dr. MacDonald’s contributions to B.C.’s high tech industry, see pages 8 and 9 of the IEEE Vancouver Section Centennial Booklet.