Helen Reynolds Belyea, OC, PhD, D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S.C, P.Geol., Geologist
(Born 11 February 1913 in Saint john, NB; Died 20 May 1986 in Calgary, AB)
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 exceptional Canadian geologist is the second woman to work for the Geological Survey of Canada (1945 to 1975), after Dr. Alice Wilson (1909 to 1946), and the first and only woman to work in the field alongside men for the Geological Survey of Canada (from 1950 to 1970). She was the first woman to win the Barlow Memorial Medal from the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (1958) for her paper on the “Distribution and Lithology of Organic Carbonate Unit of Upper Fairholme Group, Alberta” (The Canadian Encyclopedia). She became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1962), an Honorary Member of the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists (1976) and an Officer for the Order of Canada (1976).
Dr. Helen Reynolds Belyea earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in geology at the Dalhousie University, NS, where she was President of the Dawson Geology Club and, in 1936, she was the only woman in her class. Helen continued her education at the Northwestern University in Illinois, US with a PhD in geology in 1939 resulting in a dissertation focused on maritime geology titled “The Geology of the Musquash Area, New Bruswick”. Dr. Belyea was described as an accomplished equestrian, geologist, philanthropist and teacher particularly with respect to her contributions to understanding the Devonian System. Dr. Belyea authored over 30 publications with emphasis on the Devonian System. 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longer with us, and we can’t put our interview answers into her words, we are able to piece together her story based on historical references: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Geological Survey of Canada and In Memoriam.
“Helen Belyea began to work in Alberta when the petroleum industry was a man’s world. But this small determined woman, with a daunting intellect, who never suffered fools gladly, was quickly accepted as a valued colleague, as well as being admired and loved as a warm, humourous, and generous friend.” – Digby McLaren, friend and past director of the Geological Survey of Canada.
How did you decide on pursuing degree in geoscience? Did you know about geoscience before you entered university?
[We aren’t entirely sure why Helen chose to study geology at Dalhousie University in the early 1930’s shortly after completing high school. It’s possible her love of mountaineering, skiing, hiking and horseback riding as well as growing up near Stonehammer Geopark in New Brunswick inspired her curiosity in geological formations.]
How did you land your first position?
Dr. Belyea’s first positions were as a private high school teacher in Victoria, BC and Toronto, ON. She joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service during the Second World War and worked as the Naval Service Headquarters where she earned the rank of Lieutenant. It’s possible that her work during the war inspired her as shortly after her release from service in May 1945 she joined the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) as a technologist in Ottawa.
Can you briefly describe your career progression and how it has been handled in your company?
From 1945 to retirement in 1975, Dr. Belyea worked at the GSC. Her big break came in 1950, three years after oil was discovered in Leduc, AB. Helen transferred from Ottawa to Calgary becoming one of two geologists tasked to monitor the oil discovery in Leduc. It was during this time that she was the only woman geologist to work in the field alongside men for the GSC. Their field office in Calgary lead to the creation of the Institute of Sedimentary and Petroleum Geology in 1967. Helen worked in Calgary, becoming the authority on the Devonian System in Western Canada until her retirement in 1975. During this time she published over 30 articles for the GSC, including the volume on “Geological History of Western Canada” as known as “The Atlas”, and the first in a series of geological pamphlets created for Banff National Park’s staff called “The Story of the Mountains in Banff National Park”. Her many accolades include being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1964, Co-Chairman of the First International Symposium on the Devonian System in 1966, featured in the National Museum Exhibition for Canadian Women in Science in 1975, received both an honorary Doctor of Science from University of Windsor and an honorary Doctor of Laws from Dalhousie University in 1976, and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1976.
Excerpt from “The Story of the Mountains in Banff National Park”, Helen R. Belyea, 1960
The answer to the question “What are these mountains and why are they here?” is a story that begins tens of millions of years ago, and is written in the rocks themselves. They are the archives of the early days of the earth.
If you had to do it again, would you?
[We think she would! It appears she had a very clear and definitive path on what she wanted to do for a career after the war. We are very glad she did pursue geology and pave the way for future women to work alongside men 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 might have been what had brought her to the geosciences in the first place: studying what rocks are and why they are there, the outdoors and being able to do fieldwork by horseback. The worst things might have been the immense pressure of being the first and only woman to do fieldwork with men at the time and maybe the pervasive presence of sow bugs found inside some Alberta homes.]
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 in society but other women weren’t allowed to do fieldwork at the GSC until 1970, five years prior to her retirement.]
What advice would you give young women starting a career in geoscience?
[Probably … Never suffer fools gladly. – paraphrase from Digby McLaren, friend and past director of the Geological Survey of Canada]
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 Helen was advocate for feminism in geology, but we know her accomplishments show that she was an icon for diversity and equality in all aspects of geological research.]
APEGA. “Breaking New Ground: Alberta’s First Female Geoscientists”. Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta. https://discoverapega.ca/stories/breaking-new-ground-albertas-first-female-geoscientists/. Accessed 12 January 2021.
Belyea, Helen Reynolds (1960). Banff National Park: The Story of the Mountains. Queens Printer, Ottawa. https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20160128. Accessed 12 January 2021.
GEOSCAN. Publications and Records for Helen Belyea. Government of Canada. https://geoscan.nrcan.gc.ca/geoscan-index.html search for Belyea, H.R. Accessed 12 January 2021.
Gwiazda, Emily. "Helen Belyea". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 27 September 2019, Historical Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/helen-belyea. Accessed 12 January 2021.
About the Author:
Dr. Diana Benz has 25 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.