Alice Evelyn Wilson, PhD, geologist, paleontologist
(born 26 August 1881 in Cobourg, ON; died 15 April 1964 in Ottawa, ON)
Contributed by Diana Benz, PhD
While we learn about the Leading Ladies of today, it is also important to remember the Leading Ladies of our past: the women who defied gender roles and blazed the trail leaving behind impressive legacies for us to remember and strive to uphold.
One impressive Canadian geologist is the first woman employed by the Geological Survey of Canada (1909 to 1946) and the first female Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1938) (The Canadian Encyclopedia). She was also made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1935 and became a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1936. In 2018, Parks Canada commemorated Dr. Wilson with a plaque at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario.
Dr. Alice Evelyn Wilson persevered through opposition from some of her colleagues and work managers to obtain a doctorate and a distinguished career becoming one of Canada’s foremost geologists and paleontologists. Alice was described as a scientist, teacher and popularizer through her exemplary contributions to paleontology and geology, particularly with respect to her extensive studies of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowlands. Dr. Wilson authored over 50 publications and sole-authored detailed reference maps, including descriptive accounts of the geology and fossils, for approximately 14,250 square km of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowlands. Although she is no longer with us, and we can’t put our interview answers into her words, we are able to piece together her story based on historical references: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Parks Canada and The Earth Beneath Our Feet by Alice Wilson, 1947.
How did you decide on pursuing degree in geoscience? Did you know about geoscience before you entered university?
Alice Evelyn Wilson’s grandfather, father and two brothers choose academic professions. Alice’s grandfather was head of the Mathematics and Geology Department of Victoria University at the Coubourg Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario. Her father was a professor of classics at Victoria College in the University of Toronto and her brothers became a geologist and a mathematician. It is thought that her choice of entering into geoscience was inspired by her family with their academic pursuits as well as their summers spent outdoors canoeing, camping and collecting fossils.
How did you land your first position? (Through networking, applying to an ad, etc)
During a break from her studies in 1907 to obtain an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in languages and history at Victoria College, Alice began work as an assistant at the University of Toronto’s Museum of Minerology. In 1909, she qualified to work for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) as a clerk in the invertebrate paleontology section at the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.
Can you briefly describe your career progression and how it has been handled in your company?
From 1909 to retirement in 1946, Dr. Wilson worked through the ranks at the GSC. In 1920, she was promoted from clerk to assistant paleontologist. In 1926, she acquired an assistant geologist title and in 1940, after 31 years of service and a scant six years prior to retirement, she was promoted to associate geologist. During this time, Dr. Wilson pursued acceptance into conducting field work for the GSC (who barred all women from field work until 1970), however the GSC denied her travel to remote locations with male colleagues. Alice worked around the GSC’s resistance by convincing them that she could make short, solo trips into the nearby Ottawa-St. Lawrence Valley. She conducted this field work on foot and via bicycle eventually switching to a vehicle when she bought her own car (men were provided with a vehicle for field work at this time, however the GSC denied her requests for a vehicle). At the age of 65, Dr. Wilson followed the GSC’s rules of compulsory retirement but kept an office at the GSC until she was 82. In addition, Alice taught paleontology at Carleton College (later named Carleton University) from 1948 to 1957, was a consultant in petroleum geology and in 1947 she published a children’s book about geology called The Earth Beneath Our Feet.
Excerpt from The Earth Beneath Our Feet, Alice E. Wilson, 1947
To tell you what you are walking upon,
To tell you how our Earth came to be what it is,
To tell you how it is changing now, and why,
To tell you how very old it is,
To tell you it is not the hills but the sea that is everlasting.
If you had to do it again, would you?
[We think she would! It appears there was no stopping her. We are very glad she did pursue geology and pave the way for future women in the field.]
What are the three best things about your job/career? What are the three worst things?
[We think the three best things about her career would have been what had brought her to the geosciences in the first place: academic study, the outdoors and fossil collecting. The worst things might have been the denial of remote field work and maybe the swarms of insects that accompany warm temperatures in the spring of southern Ontario.]
Do you see, in either your work space or the industry in general, the place of women becoming more main stream, about the same as when you started, or worse?
[We think that she did see the place of women becoming more mainstream as she collaborated with a couple of women for her book. In the acknowledgments, she thanks Miss M.C. Melbourne for her insight into writing a book for children and her gratitude to Dr. Grace A. Stewart for which the book was designed as a joint effort.]
What advice would you give young women starting a career in geoscience?
[Probably … “If you meet a stone wall you don’t pit yourself against it, you go around it and find a weakness.” – Alice Wilson on the relationship between men and women in geology]
Why/How is diversity important to you? Thoughts on what should be focused on or how to improve diversity within geoscience?
[We are not sure if diversity was a buzz word in the early 1900s, but we like to think that her children’s book for both boys and girls, edited by both educated men and women, is a testament to diversity and equality regardless of the era.]
About the Author:
Dr. Diana Benz has over 20 years of experience working in the mineral exploration industry searching for diamonds and metals in a range of roles: from heavy minerals lab technician to till sampler, rig geologist, project manager and business owner. She has a Bachelor of Science in General Biology, a Master of Science in Earth Sciences researching diamond indicator mineral geochemistry and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies researching geochemical multivariate statistical analysis techniques for use in interpreting biogeochemical data for mineral exploration. Diana has conducted field work in Canada (BC, NWT, YT and ON) as well as in Greenland. She has also been involved, remotely through a BC-based office, on mineral exploration projects located in South America, Africa, Eurasia, Australia and the Middle East. Currently, Diana is the owner of Takom Exploration Ltd., a small geological and environmental consulting firm focused on metal exploration in BC and the Yukon.
Russell, Loris S. and Erin James-Abra. "Alice Wilson". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 11 February 2020, Historica Canada. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/alice-evelyn-wilson. Accessed 27 February 2020.
Thériault, Caroline. “Government of Canada Recognizes National Historic Significance of Geologist Alice Evelyn Wilson”. Office of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. https://www.canada.ca/en/parks-canada/news/2018/10/government-of-canada-recognizes-national-historic-significance-of-geologist-alice-evelyn-wilson.html
Wilson, Alice Evelyn (1947). The Earth Beneath Our Feet. The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited.