Wilson Duff was born on March 23, 1925. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator, Duff attended the University of British Columbia and graduated with a B.A. in 1949. Two years later, in 1951, he completed his M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Washington. Duff’s professional research concentrated primarily on the native cultures of the Northwest Coast and he was instrumental in the development of scholarship in this area. His influence on the study and appreciation of Northwest Coast art was also very profound as he inspired artistic work and in some ways was an artist himself, as evidenced by his poetry and the poetic nature of some of his writing.
In 1950, (prior to being awarded his M.A.) Duff was appointed Curator of Anthropology for the British Columbia Provincial Museum, a position he would hold until 1965. From 1960-1965 he directed the British Columbia Government Anthropology Program. In 1965 Duff left the Museum to become a professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia. Throughout his career, Duff maintained a close association with museums and galleries, helping to plan buildings and exhibits, and he was involved in the early stages of planning of the new Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Two major exhibits by Duff include “Arts of the Raven” shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery (1967) and “Images Stone B.C.” (1975) shown locally in Vancouver and Victoria before travelling to art galleries across Canada.
Duff was active on a number of committees and he was a founding member of the British Columbia Museums Association where he served as Vice-president from 1962-1963 and as President from 1963-1965. Duff also served on the joint British Columbia Provincial Museum and University of British Columbia Totem Pole Preservation Committee that purchased and salvaged some of the last remaining poles in the Queen Charlotte Islands in the 1950’s. In addition, he chaired the provincial government's Archaeological Sites Advisory Board from 1960-1966 and served on the provincial government's Indian Advisory Committee. During this time he led support for legislation to protect British Columbia’s archaeological remains and worked on the draft of British Columbia’s first “Archaeological and Historic Sites Protection Act” that was passed in 1960. In 1960 Duff acted as a consultant for the Kitwancool tribe and served as an expert witness in the Nishga land case before the B.C. Supreme Court in 1969. That same year, on behalf of the Alaska State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, he surveyed the totem poles of southwest Alaska. Two years later, in 1971, Duff directed a project to record the history of southeast Alaska Indians for the Alaska State Museum.
Throughout his academic career, Wilson Duff wrote a number of articles, manuscripts and books. From 1950-1956 he was the editor of Anthropology in British Columbia and his first publication in 1953 was based on his Master’s Thesis on the Upper Sto:lo Indians. Published articles and book reviews by Duff can be found in Anthropology in British Columbia no.1, 2, 3, 4, 5; The Crowsnest 9(3); Victoria Naturalist vols. 7, 8, 16(7); B.C. Historical Quarterly, July-October 1951; American Anthropologist vol.54, no.4; Canadian Art 11(2); Anthropology in British Columbia Memoir no.4; Western Museums Quarterly 1(3); Museum Round-up no.12, 16; Anthropologica vol. 6, no.1; B.C. Studies no.3, 19; and Northwest Anthropological Research Notes 3(2). Although many of Duff’s manuscripts remain unpublished, a number of his books are considered to be foremost reference sources in their field. Such publications by Duff include: Thunderbird Park, Victoria B.C., (Government Travel Bureau, 1952), Selected List of Publications Pertaining to the Indians of British Columbia (with J.E.M. Kew, 1956); British Columbia Atlas of Resources (maps 12, 13a, 13b, 1956); Anthony Island, a Home of the Haidas (1957); Histories, territories and laws of the Kitwancool (1959); The Killer Whale Copper (A Chief’s Memorial to His Son (1960); Preserving British Columbia’s Prehistory. Archaeological Sites Advisory Board (1961); Indian History of British Columbia: The Impact of the White Man (1965); Thoughts on the Nootka Canoe (1965); Arts of the Raven: Masterworks by the Northwest Coast Indians (1967); Indians before the arrival of the white men, the Indians after the arrival of the white men (1967); Indians of British Columbia: Selected Bibliography (1968); Totem Pole Survey of Southeastern Alaska (1969); Bibliography of Anthropology of B.C. (1973); and Images Stone B.C. Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian sculpture (1975). In 1996, Bird of paradox: the unpublished writings of Wilson Duff was published.
Wilson Duff died August 8, 1976 leaving behind his wife, Marion and his two children, Marnie and Tom. In 1981, “The World is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honor of Wilson Duff” was published by the British Columbia Provincial Museum and contained essays, reminisces, artwork, and poetry celebrating Duff’s accomplishments, research and friendships.