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Alice Evelyn Wilson (1881-1964)

Alice Evelyn Wilson (1881-1964)

"We never understood how she could do all she did in a day, first to the Survey, then a two-hour lecture with us, then back to the Survey, and then a field trip in the afternoon (Meadowcroft, 1990, p. 218)."

Alice Evelyn Wilson was Canada’s first female geologist to be hired by the Geological Survey of Canada. In order to achieve this, Alice had to overcome many different barriers throughout her life and career, and she did so with confidence in her talents, and passion for her research.

Alice Wilson was born in 1881 in Cobourg, Ontario. Richard Wilson, Alice’s father, was eager to show his children the outdoors; so Alice quickly became “accustomed to an out-of-door life” with “canoe and tramping (Meadowcroft, 1990, p. 205).”

Alice's family encouraged learning and intellectual curiosity, and in 1901, Alice began her University education at Victoria College, in Toronto, studying Classics. Unfortunately, during her third year of studies, Alice experienced a serious bout of anemia, an illness she would battle the remainder of her life, and failed several exams. After this difficult time, Alice chose not to return to university and instead began a clerk position at the University of Toronto. In 1909, Alice found work in the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), as a museum assistant in the paleontology department.

While Alice was working at the Survey she was encouraged by the paleontologist Percy Raymond to return to her studies and complete her undergraduate degree. After successfully completing her education, Alice returned to the Survey and continued to work with Raymond. Alice learned about fossils and was eventually permitted to go on short fieldwork trips around Ottawa since long trips were considered unsuitable for women. Alice would continue to conduct fieldwork in the Ottawa Valley for the remainder of her career. Alice wanted to get her Ph.D., which was necessary in order for her to advance in her career at the Survey. She applied for leave from the Survey to do so but was unfortunately rejected, although most other male geologists who applied for the same leave were granted it.

Alice applied for leave several more times, but was continually rejected, the reasoning of which she attributed to her gender, explaining that “the grounds for refusal have been various, the fundamental reason has been that it would make a woman eligible for the highest positions in the Survey (Meadowcroft, 1990, p. 208).”

During this period at the Survey, Alice’s health deteriorated once again. Despite these setbacks, she continued to request permission to pursue her Ph.D., and in 1924, was granted permission to leave, but without pay. To overcome this, Alice sought scholarship funding and asked to be considered by the Canadian Federation of University Women for their annual scholarship. Initially, the Survey did not allow Alice to apply, but they eventually relented, and she was chosen as the recipient for 1926.

This was not the end of Alice’s battle to gain her Ph.D., but she was ultimately successful. Alice, using her fieldwork from the Ottawa valley, gained her Ph.D. in Geology in 1929 from the University of Chicago.

The issues that Alice faced prior to her leave with regards to her gender did not dissipate with her Ph.D., and while she was on leave, the Director of the Survey, Dr. D.H. Collins, requested that Alice’s substitute be male. After attaining her Ph.D., Alice applied for a promotion to the position of associate invertebrate paleontologist, which was denied in part because Collins did not think that a woman could fulfill the requirements of the position, and would be consequently overpaid.

It was only in 1935, when the government took notice of Alice's accomplishments and made her the first female member of the British Order of Canada, that the Survey began to recognize Alice's talents and qualifications as well. In 1936, Alice moved from the Palaeontology Unit to the Geology Unit and became an Assistant Geologist.

In 1945, Alice became a full Geologist. Although Alice was supposed to retire at age 65, in 1946, as was regulation, she continued to conduct fieldwork and began to teach at Carleton University Alice was passionate about her work and was determined to pursue her research until it was physically impossible. In 1959, the Survey held a party to recognize and celebrate Alice's fifty years at the Survey. Only in 1963, after suffering failing health did Alice stop teaching and give up her office at the Survey. Alice died in 1964, but her legacy lives on. Students still rely on her publications concerning the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Lowland and the Canadian Federation of University Women has donated a fund in her honour to help other women seeking university educations.

Alice Wilson fought for her education and career, and her passion and perseverance made it possible for her to succeed in a field entirely dominated by men.


Images of Alice Wilson retrieved from NRCAN:

NRCAN license of use:


Alice Wilson. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2018, from

Alice Wilson: Geochemistry and Geochronology. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2018, from

Meadowcroft, B. (1990). Alice Wilson, 1881-1964 : Explorer of the Earth Beneath her Feet. In Despite the Odds : Essays on Canadian Women and Science(pp. 204-219). Montreal: Véhicule Press.

Montagnes, A. (1966). Alice Wilson, 1881-1964. InThe Clear Spirit : Twenty Canadian Women and their Times (260-278). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sinclair, W. G. (1966). Memorial To Alice E. Wilson (1881-1964). Geological Society of America Bulletin, 77(11), 215-218. doi:10.1130/0016-7606(1966)77[p215:mtaew];2

This Week in History Archives: Nothing Could Stop Alice Wilson. (2012, December 24). Retrieved January 15, 2018, from

Russell, L. (1965). Alice Evelyn Wilson. The Canadian Field- Naturalist,70(3), 159-161

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