Science Literacy Week: Thelma Finlayson

September 14, 2018

Written by: Gabby Chia

At some point in our lives we will all have the opportunity to meet someone inspiring, ambitious, and passionate about helping the world and its people. Thelma Finlayson was this person for thousands of women, students, and academic professionals. In celebration of Science Literacy Week, we are highlighting this influential and innovative entomologist who not only enabled woman to pursue opportunities they didn't see available to them, but continued to guide those who wish to pursue their paths for years after retirement. 

Source: Simon Fraser University

Full of Firsts

Finlayson earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto in 1936 with a certification in Taxonomy and Biological control. This was during the height of the Great Depression, but she was eager to gain employment from the Dominion Parasite Laboratory in Belleville, Ontario. Despite her qualifications, she was a woman in the 1930s, and being so, she was not about to enter this field so easily and was turned away. However, she was headstrong and adamant to be considered beyond her biology and sat on their doorstep, refusing to leave. Eventually, they realized they needed an extra pair of hands. She was asked to help on a project which finally led to her gaining employment, becoming one of the first woman scientists to enter the federal research branch.

However, this victory was shortly lived because she later married another entomologist, Roy Finlayson, and in the 1940s, married women could not work in civil service. When World War II hit and women were needed to fill the employment vacancies left by men, Thelma was hired. As you may expect, when the war came to a close, Thelma was let go once again. However, Thelma is not so easily swayed. The injustice towards her only made her passion for equality grow, and she fought to eventually earn the title of Assistant Deputy Minister and becoming a spearhead for Canadian women in STEM. Her influential work as an entomologist for the government even led to two insects being named after her, an oakworm moth, Anisota finlaysoni, and a wasp, Mesopolobus finlaysoni.

Source: Simon Fraser University

Involvement and Advising at Simon Fraser University

Finlayson’s trailblazing career didn’t end there. When many her age were thinking of retirement, she moved across the country to become a professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU) despite only having a Bachelors of Arts degree. She was the first woman to be hired as a professor in Biological Sciences at SFU as well as the first Professor Emerita! She worked with Dr. Bryan Beirne in hopes to control pests in an integrated manner using as small a dose of chemical pesticide as possible long before these ideas became popular. The two also worked to establish the Masters of Pest Management Program at SFU, a now world famous program still active today.

After her academic career, Thelma felt she still had to do more for those hoping to pursue a career in entomology. She received a call from the SFU Academic Vice President, Brian Wilson asking for her opinion on his idea of creating some kind of student help unit. Instead of simply expressing her support, she asked to be a part of it and advised students for 40 years up until the age of 95 when she was forced to retire. Even then, she published her most recent paper at the age of 99! The SFU Academic Advice Centre has since been renamed the Thelma Finlayson Centre for Student Engagement in her honor. 

Source: Burnaby Now

Professor Finlayson received many other honours including being elected a Fellow (1993) and Honorary (1990) Member of the Entomological Society of Canada, received an Honorary Doctorate from SFU (1996), Honorary Member of the Entomological Societies of both BC (1985) and Ontario (2013), the Order of Canada (2005), the YWCA Women of Distinction award (2007), and SFU’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award (2010),  and made a lifetime Member of the Canadian Universities Women's Society.

Thelma was an innovative entomologist and helped pave the way for woman in STEM up until her death on September 15, 2016. Not only did she fight to give women and girls a role model to look to for guidance, she made it her job to ensure they recieved the help they needed directly from the source. Where most people retire to take time for themselves, she continued to help others until she no longer could.

If you want to learn more, check out our podcast with gail anderson, forensic entomologist and professor mentored by Thelma finlayson here. If you want to check out any Science Literacy Week events near you, click here.