York Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell, a renowned physicist and changemaking philanthropist, was recently named the Philanthropist of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).
The AFP award, which was presented to Carswell in November 2022, recognizes “an individual or family that has demonstrated outstanding civic and philanthropic leadership through a proven record of exceptional generosity and financial support.”
“Dr. Carswell’s support for student scholarships, research, community outreach and groundbreaking technology has had a lasting and transformational impact at York University and beyond. Congratulations and thank you, Allan, for your many acts of generosity,” said York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton.
More than 50 years ago, Carswell joined York University as a professor of physics. He is credited as a pioneering researcher in the use of laser radar or LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, which maps the physical features of Earth and other planets. This development also has numerous applications in remote sensing and environmental diagnostics.
His research at York led Carswell and his late wife, Helen Carswell, to found Optech Incorporated in 1974, which would enable more practical applications of LiDAR systems. For the first several years of business, the couple operated Optech out of their family home. Helen oversaw the company that would evolve into an organization of more than 300 employees, which became a world leader in the provision of lasers for airborne surveying, 3D-imaging, atmospheric measurements, process control applications and space systems.
After 30 years at York, numerous senior leadership and research roles, and founding his own company, Carswell retired to run the Carswell Family Foundation, which funds education and health-care causes. Carswell and Helen contributed to numerous initiatives at York and beyond. The Carswells have funded three Research Chair positions in the School of Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD), Faculty of Science, and Faculty of Health, along with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory.
From his first gift in 1986 to honour the life of York student Denise Hobbins, to supporting the Helen Carswell STEAM Program that connects students who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), including women, Black and Indigenous high school students, with meaningful research opportunities, the Carswells’ legacy at York has become synonymous with positive change.
“It was actually my wife, Helen who started it all off,” said Carswell, reflecting on how the couple began their first major philanthropic efforts. “She trained as a nurse at what was the [Toronto] East General Hospital. When we toured that hospital, she was so taken with it that she decided to award them with $1 million to set up a special program there. I think one of the by-products of that was that it made both Helen and myself feel so good to give away money, especially when you saw the results in terms of people.”
In July of 2022, Helen died after almost 20 years of living with Alzheimer’s Disease. In her memory and in honor of World Alzheimer’s Month, the Carswell Family Foundation recently funded a $2.26 million partnership between York University and the Alzheimer Society of York Region to lead an evaluation research program of Alzheimer’s and dementia care programs.