Alice Evelyn Wilson (1881-1964)

Backgrounder

A scientist and a trailblazer, Dr. Alice Evelyn Wilson helped pave the way for women in scientific fields and within the federal civil service. Despite opposition from some of her colleagues and superiors at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), Wilson persevered in obtaining a doctorate and led a distinguished career, becoming one of Canada’s foremost geologists and paleontologists. Wilson was the first woman employed as a geologist at the GSC, and as a scientist, teacher, and popularizer, she made significant contributions to paleontology and geology, especially through her exhaustive studies of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowlands.

 

Working in a male-dominated field in the early 20th century, Wilson struggled throughout her career to have her professional aspirations taken seriously. At the GSC, where she began work as a clerk in the invertebrate paleontology section in 1909, Wilson pursued her passion for fossils and started research of her own. When colleagues raised objections to a woman doing fieldwork, which meant spending time living in camps with a group of men at remote sites, Wilson offered to study the fossils and rocks of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowlands, an area easily accessible from her home. On foot, by bicycle and later by car, she would explore this area for the next 50 years. The GSC repeatedly denied Wilson’s applications for leave to acquire a doctorate, a request that was routinely granted for promising male employees. Wilson eventually won a private scholarship from the Canadian Federation of University Women, an organization whose advocacy proved instrumental in her becoming a recognized authority in her field, allowing her the time and funds to complete her doctorate. After completing her degree at the University of Chicago in 1929, Wilson continued to be overlooked for promotion at the GSC, despite her credentials and many years of professional experience. Eventually, the GSC appointed her assistant geologist in 1936 and associate geologist in 1940, likely by virtue of external recognition of her research: she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1935, became a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1936, and became the first female Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1938.

 

Wilson authored over 50 scientific publications, and single-handedly prepared detailed reference maps of some 14,250 km2 of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowlands, linking them to descriptive accounts of its geology and fossils. In addition, she initiated a national typological collection of invertebrate fossils at the GSC that is one of the largest such collections in the world and still serves as a master reference base. Wilson shared her expertise with students and interested members of the public through lectures, field trips, publications, and museum exhibits. Her thesis on the geology of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowlands provided valuable information for the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. At the crossroads of science and women’s history, Wilson produced ground-breaking research and led a determined fight for women’s educational opportunities and recognition.

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