Women's History Month: Dr. Alice Wilson

October 01, 2018

Written by: Alicen Ricard

Women’s History Month is upon us in Canada and we have a whole new set of women to talk about. To kick off the month, we’re profiling Dr. Alice Wilson, who was the first woman in Canada to become a geologist, as well as a world renowned paleontologist.

Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Dr. Alice Wilson was born August 26, 1881 in Cobourg, Ontario. She developed an interest in paleontology from a young age, from going on camping trips with her father and brothers. When she was twenty, she started studying language at Victoria College in Toronto. She wasn’t able to finish her degree until ten years later, due to illness. She had started working for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in 1909 as a museum assistant. She wanted to continue with her education, but the GSC wouldn’t allow her to have paid leave to do so. The Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) awarded her with a scholarship, but the GSC still denied her permission to study.  The CFUW fought on her behalf and finally won. In 1929, when she was 49, she was finally able to get her PhD from the University of Chicago.

Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Alice’s journey through the ranks of the GSC was slower than her coworker’s because of her gender. In 1920 she was promoted from clerk to assistant paleontologist. Six years later she was promoted to assistant geologist, because that was seen as a higher rank than assistant paleontologist. She was denied much recognition from the GSC until she became a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1935, even though she worked with them from 1909 to 1946. She was elected into the Geological Society of America in 1936. In 1938 she became the first woman to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1940 she was finally promoted to associate geologist. Even after she retired from the GSC, she continued to lecture on paleontology at Carleton University. She earned an honourary degree from them in 1960.


Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

 Alice was the authority on the fossils and rocks of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Valley region.  She focused on invertebrate fossils in Canada in the Paleozoic era (252-541 million years ago) and in Ontario during the Ordovician period (444-485 million years ago). She also studied Ordovician fauna and stratigraphy. She ran into some issues when it came to doing her research. She was only allowed to go on short trips by herself into the St. Lawrence Valley, and wasn’t allowed to travel to remote locations with the men in her department. Transportation was also an issue. Even though the GSC provided all the men with vehicles, they wouldn’t provide her one so she had to travel on bike or by foot until she brought her own vehicle.

She was forced to retire when she was 65 but she kept teaching and kept an office at the GSC until she was 82, which was also the year she died. Her legacy lives on as a pioneer for women in her field.

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