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Helen Irene Battle (1903-1994)

Helen Irene Battle, the first Canadian woman to earn a Ph.D. in marine biology, shared her passion for learning and knowledge with many students throughout her career as a Professor at the University of Western Ontario.

Helen was born in London, Ontario, in 1903. When Helen was sixteen, she began her undergraduate studies at the Western University of London Ontario (which would be later renamed the University of Western Ontario). Students often took courses in informal locations, and Helen’s comparative anatomy lab was located in a barn. Helen graduated in 1923 with a double major in Botany and Zoology.

The following year Helen began her Master’s at the University of Western Ontario, beginning her lifelong work on fish embryology, in the Department of Zoology. After her Master’s, Helen, for the only time in her life, left London to study at the University of Toronto. In 1928, Helen became the first female in Canada to earn her Ph.D. in Marine Biology.

 After earning her Ph.D., Helen returned to London and began her career as a Professor. She continued her research on fish embryology and applied cutting-edge techniques that helped her stand out in the scientific community, and she published 37 journal articles throughout her career. Helen also stood out as a teacher, with one historian writing that Helen “ was considered one of Canada’s most gifted teachers, teaching an introductory biology class to arts students as well as embryology to medical students and advanced courses to honours zoology students (Balon, Bruton and Noakes, 2013, pp. 20).” Helen left a mark on the lives of her students, with many coming to visit her after their graduations.

Even after retirement, Helen continued to teach in other ways, such as the filming of television lectures for the Natural Science Centre. Helen’s achievements and contributions to the scientific community were well recognized. For instance, a scholarship for Zoology students was created in her name, and she received the Canadian Centennial Medal.

Throughout her career, Helen taught over 4500 students. Helen was committed to all of her students, but she was especially determined to encourage her female students to pursue further education. When asked about her experience in a male-dominated field, Helen said, “I never felt I was promoted or demoted because I was a woman (Ainley, 1990, pp.43).”

Helen was also named as one of nineteen remarkable female scientists by the national Museum of Natural Science in 1975, to honour International Women’s Year. Helen also received several honorary degrees such as a Doctor of Science from the Carleton University. When speaking of her accomplishments, the Dean of Science at Carleton remarked that Helen has more than enhanced the status of women; “she has brought to all that dazzling combination of charm, devotion, and humanity that make her a ‘true apostle of women’s rights (Zimmer, 2005).’”


Balon, E. K., Bruton, M. N., & Noakes, D. L. (2013). Women in Ichthyology: An Anthology in Honour of et Ro and Genie. Place of publication not identified: Springer.

Gosztonyi Ainley, M.(1990) Last in the Field? Canadian Woman Natural Scientists, 1815-1965. In Despite the odds : essays on Canadian women and science (25-62).  Montreal : Véhicule Press. 

Helen Irene Battle. (n.d.). Retrieved January 16, 2018, from,

McMillan, D. B. (n.d.). Helen Irene Battle. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from

McMillan, Donald B. (2011, July 24). Helen Irene Battle. Retrieved January 16, 2022 from,

Zimmer, Mitchell. (2005, December) Helen Irene Battle: A Part of Our History. Retrieved January 16, 2022 from,

Image of Helen Irene Battle. 2005. The Science Flashpoint . University of Western Ontario.

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