Trailblazing scientist and advisor passes away at 102

September 26, 2016

SFU professor emerita Thelma Finlayson excelled in two careers while at Simon Fraser University - the first as a "trailblazing" entomologist who helped found SFU's pest management program, and the other, sharing academic advice with SFU students, a role she continued for nearly 40 years afterwards. 

The University community is saddened by the news of her passing last week, at the age of 102. A celebration of life is being planned and details will be announced soon.

"As a professor, mentor, advisor and educator, Thelma touched so many lives in so many ways, and we are deeply appreciative of her impact on SFU, almost since the University’s inception,” says SFU professor Gail Anderson, a long-time friend and colleague. “She has mentored many young scientists, myself included, and they have gone on to mentor their own students, who will mentor the next generation. And so Thelma’s legacy lives on.”

Finlayson began her career in 1937 as the first female scientist in the Department of Agriculture at the Belleville Research Institute in Ontario. She joined SFU in 1967 and was the first female faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences, and later, SFU’s first professor emerita.

A founding member of SFU’s Centre for Pest Management, she studied larval taxonomy and specialized in the use of parasites as natural ways of controlling forest and agricultural pests. Her work and reputation led to two species of insects being named for her.

In 1983 she was named a special advisor to SFU students a role she described as a “true joy”. She counseled more than 8,000 students, working well past the age of 95.

“Much of the time all it takes is for students to talk things through to help them get back on track, and I just loved being there to listen,” she once said.

In addition to devoting time to students, Finlayson continued to advocate for the field of entomology through significant financial contributions, including an endowment to establish the Finlayson Chair in Biological Control, and entrance scholarships and fellowships for students in the Master of Pest Management program.

At 99, she co-authored a paper published in a New Zealand journal with SFU professor emeritus and colleague Manfred Mackauer. The pair’s research was first published in the Canadian Entomologist in 1967.

Finlayson was honoured two years ago with the naming of the Thelma Finlayson Student Engagement Centre at the Burnaby campus in recognition of her dedicated work with students. A 100th birthday celebration in her honour the same year drew many friends and former faculty members, including two former presidents. She gave a 20-minute speech, with no notes.

Finlayson received an honorary degree from SFU in 1996, and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2005. In 2007 she was recognized with a YWCA Women of Distinction award, and in 2010 was honoured with SFU's Chancellor's Distinguished Service Award.

Read the Vancouver Sun coverage here.