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Visionary humanitarian and physicist Dr. Allan Carswell wins Outstanding Philanthropist Award

Visionary humanitarian and physicist Dr. Allan Carswell wins Outstanding Philanthropist Award

York University President and Vice Chancellor Rhonda Lenton (L) with Dr. Allan Carswell (R)

Dr. Allan Carswell, a renowned physicist, former York University professor and changemaking philanthropist, was recently named the Philanthropist of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).

The award – presented to Dr. 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 decades-long philanthropic efforts fit these requirements to a tee. 

A brilliant physicist

Well over 50 years ago, Dr. Allan Carswell joined York University as a professor of physics. He is credited as a pioneer of laser radar or LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, which revolutionized how we map 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 Dr. 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 a 300+ employee organization that soon became the world leader in the provision of lasers for airborne surveying, 3D-imaging, atmospheric measurements, process control applications and space systems.

Giving back

After 30 years at York, numerous senior leadership and research roles, and founding his own company, Dr. Carswell retired to run the Carswell Family Foundation, which funds education and healthcare causes. Dr. Carswell and Helen have contributed to innumerable causes 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, which connects students who are underrepresented in STEM – including women, Black and Indigenous high school students – with meaningful research opportunities, , and so much more in between, the Carswells’ legacy at York has become synonymous with positive change.

“It was actually my wife, Helen who started it all off,” said Dr. Carswell, reflecting on how the couple began their first major philanthropic efforts. “She’d 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 $1,000,000 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.”

“Dr. Carswell’s support for student scholarships, research, community outreach and ground-breaking technology has had a lasting and transformational impact at York University and beyond. Congratulations and thank you, Allan, for your many acts of generosity,” says Rhonda Lenton, President and Vice Chancellor of York University.

In July of 2022, Helen tragically passed away after close to 20 years of battling Alzheimer’s Disease. In her honour, and for World Alzheimer’s Month, the Carswell Family Foundation 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. This program, like so many others supported by the Carswells, is creating far-reaching, truly positive change.