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Alice Wilson

Alice Evelyn Wilson is the first female geologist in Canada

Alice Evelyn Wilson was the first female geologist in Canada and first woman to become a member of the Royal Society of Canada. This was a great achievement especially considering that Alice Wilson began her career in 1913.

She was a fossil fanatic. Collecting rocks and fossils was not just a hobby it was her lifelong passion and profession.

Alice Wilson was born on August 26, 1881 in Cobourg Ontario and as a child was already interested in fossils. She spent childhood summers with her two brothers searching for rocks and fossils. In her family science was highly valued. In addition to a love of learning, Alice was an outdoor life fan, canoeing and camping with her father and brothers.

Back in 1913 some jobs were not considered typical for women. Most of the women were busy raising their children and taking care of their husbands. A popular job for women was teaching, for example. One could easily count famous women scientists because there weren’t that many.

Alice was very devoted to her career in science, and the fact that it wasn’t easy for her, as a woman, didn’t stop her. One could tell how hard it must have been just thinking of the fact that people started calling Alice Wilson a doctor only shortly before her death. She was one of the most competent authorities in the world of geology, her works were recognized, yet it was hard for people to realize that a woman could be a professor. Another problem was that she couldn’t participate in field works freely. Fieldwork meant that she had to spend time living in camps with a group of men on some remote campsites. A woman in the wilderness working alongside men was considered unthinkable. Back then this fact alone would have been harmful for a woman’s reputation so Alice had to work on local sites in the Ottawa St. Lawrence lowlands. For the next fifty years, she studied this area on foot, by bicycle and eventually by car. She used up her savings to buy a car for that job.

When we are talking about Alice Wilson, we should also remember that she was not a strong and muscular athlete, she was quite frail and had health problems. Alice never allowed her ill health to hold her back. She rode all over Ottawa on her bicycle studying rocks. She eventually mapped more than 16,000 square kilometers.

Alice first choice of studies was modern languages. She studied it at Victoria University in Cobourg in 1901, but ill health interrupted her studies. Later Alice Wilson said that her choice of modern languages was because it was more appropriate for a lady to study but she was happy that her ill health interrupted her studies and eventually she could choose the profession by her heart. She had to take an academic leave. When she felt better, she decided to follow her childhood love to geology and worked as an assistant at the University of Toronto’s mineralogy department.

Eight years later, Alice was hired as a temporary clerk in the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa. She catalogued, arranged and labeled the collection for the museum for a very small pay of $800 a year. In 1909, she became a museum assistant at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in Ottawa. She was the first woman to hold a professional position at the Geological Survey of Canada. Her salary was $850 per year.

Alice kept climbing up the professional ladder and in 1919 became Assistant Paleontologist. Canadian Federation of University Women awarded her a scholarship so that she could continue graduate studies. She couldn’t just take it and study and had to fight for a leave of absence.

In order to continue her academic studies Wilson first requested leave to undertake doctoral studies in 1915. At that time the Survey was granting paid leaves of absence for studies. Her request for leave was repeatedly denied. It took her seven years to get a leave from Geological Survey. When Alice was 48 years old she completed her PhD studies and received a doctorate in geology from the University of Chicago.

When she returned to the GSC with her PhD, she was not given a pay increase, as was the common practice. Also she was repeatedly denied promotions and the professional recognition she deserved.

In 1935, when the government was looking for a woman in the federal civil service to honor, Wilson was chosen to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Shortly after, the GSC published her work for the first time in ten years and gave her a promotion. In 1936 Wilson became a Fellow in the Geological Society of America and in 1938 became the first woman Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada. It took her 30 years to achieve this.

Alice officially retired in 1946 at age 65. Five people were hired to replace her.

She was still leading trips for students when in her eighties, although the energy with which she attacked fences and cliffs often frightened her young students.

She described her older years as the happiest: “The best and most enjoyable years of my career were spent after I reached retirement age! I loved to teach and share my passion for geology and paleontology. I wrote a book on geology for children. I continued my scientific work. Gradually, my contributions were recognized”.

Alice kept her office at the GSC, continuing to visit daily and help with the fieldwork. In late 1963, at 82, she gave up her office.

She died several months later on April 15, 1964.

A Scientific Acievement

Alice Wilson succeeded in a scientific field dominated by men. She made it possible, by example, for other women to work in science-related professions.

Alice’s extensive research of the fossils of the Ottawa St. Lawrence lowlands enriched our knowledge of these regions. The important information she gathered on the geology and paleontology of the area around Cornwall, Ontario, was important for the planning and construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Alice Wilson was a recognized authority on the Paleozoic formations of eastern Canada. She especially excelled in her knowledge of the Ordovician age and wrote many papers, was giving lectures, had a series of publications and, through field trips and museum exhibits, helped bring geology to the general public, especially children.

Alice Wilson was a remarkable woman in many ways. It was her extraordinary determination and her enormous enthusiasm for her work that always carried her forward.

Mitch Grigori

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