People and Progress in Early Canadian Geoscience

Proud Heritage: People and Progress in Early Canadian Geoscience

Christy Vodden

Edited by R.W. Macqueen Geological Association of Canada, Geoscience Canada Reprint Series 8, 2004, hardcover, 252 pages, $65 ($52 for GAC members).

Everyone interested in the history of geoscience in Canada (and that would be everyone reading this magazine, I hope) owes a huge thank you to Roger Macqueen, Gerry Middleton and the Geological Association of Canada for pulling together a widely scattered collection of articles on that very topic and supplementing it with valuable references for further reading.

The earliest geological observations of the part of the planet that has become Canada were made by explorers such as Martin Frobisher and Samuel Champlain as footnotes to their broader agendas of discover> Two centuries later, in the 1800s, the need to develop resources was imperative to the future of the Province of Canada, and interest in natural history was blossoming at a fabulous rate. This was the age of the self-taught geologist, and foremost amongst them was the Geological Survey of Canada’s founder William Logan, who was proclaimed Canada’s greatest scientist in “The 100 Most Important Canadians in History” issue of Maclean’s magazine in 1998.

Under Logan’s leadership and example, the following generations of geologists systematically traversed the vast Canadian wilderness, and gathered the knowledge needed to build the nation. Until well into the Twentieth Century, these explorer-geologists brought back much more than information about the rocks and minerals. They catalogued the forests, soils, potable waters, safe harbours; they drew the topographic maps, recommended routes for railways, collected specimens of plants and animals, and transcribed languages and customs of the Aboriginal peoples they encountered. Their names dot the Canadian landscape: Mount Logan, the Selwyn Mountains, Dawson City, to name but a few. The work they did was so broad in scope that it was spun off into many other institutions, most directly and notably, the national museums of Nature, Civilization, and Science and Technology. Proud heritage, indeed!

Funny thing, though, if you check most popular texts on Canadian history, you will find only the barest mention made of the role of these trailblazers and nation builders. There are many reasons for this glaring omission from the official record, with one being the difficulty in tracking the information. There are some excellent texts, mostly out of print, if you know what to look for. Otherwise it’s all there in the annual reports of the GSC and the records of the provincial and territorial surveys; it’s in the memoirs of the handful of geologists who took the time to write them; it’s in correspondence and field journals held in dozens of archives across the country: In other words, if you have lots of time, a healthy travel budget, and the tracking skills of Hercule Poirot, it’s all there for the finding.

In the 1970s, the GAC started to tackle these twinned problems of low recognition of the geoscience community’s contribution to the development of Canada and the difficulty in finding this information. Short articles on illustrious geoscientists were sought and published, first in the GAC Proceedings and later in Geoscience Canada, which was started up in 1974. Understandably, these volunteered articles were written for many reasons personal to the author: to celebrate a hero or mentor, to build a reputation of one whose work had been overlooked, or to reclaim a reputation deemed to have been unfairly judged.

“Proud Heritage” pulls together this eclectic collection in one handy volume and adds to it many other valuable resources for those wishing to delve further. It starts with articles on four people, untrained in geology, who nevertheless made a contribution to geology in Canada. This is followed by articles that chronicle various aspects of the life, work and contribution of close to 30 geoscientists who were pioneers and leaders in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. These range from such well-known luminaries like Logan and George Dawson to those who should be better known. The final section looks at the origins of various organizations within the geoscience community and some early studies. Importantly, each article includes a list of the references used.

Gerry Middleton’s introduction is a treasure trove of other sources for more detailed reading, much of it annotated by him. He does not limit the bibliography to geoscience. By providing key references for the broader history of science and of Canada, he enables those interested to place the contribution of geoscience into a broader context. He also provides a fascinating timeline of Canadian geology from 7000 B.C. to 1965–a good exercise for the entire geoscience community would be to look at this list with a view to adding to it (the PDAC’s founding in 1932 is missing, as is the opening in 1918 of the GSC’s Vancouver office), and to build it from 1965 to present. Finally, he has pulled together two lists of historical interest: these give the numbers of permanent employees of the GSC prior to 1900 and list geologists active in Canadian universities established before 1900.

Even the casual reader will find much of interest in this volume. Be warned, though, that the articles vary widely as to scope and style. Some take a magnifying glass to a single facet of their subject’s life, whereas others give an aerial view of an entire career and its impact. A few articles are so precise as to the provenance of each point made that the reading experience is akin to eating spinach that has not had all the sand washed off. Most, however, are a sheer delight to read from start to finish. The nice thing about a collection like this is that if one article proves heavy slogging and is far from your interest zone, you need only flip forward a few pages to find a more congenial one. The only other caution is that most of the articles are reprinted from the original, so the typesetting varies as the style guide changed at Geoscience Canada. Those articles from the mid-1980s, when our collective eyesight was much sharper, are printed in a very tiny type.

On a final note, I hope that the GAC will promote “Proud Heritage” strategically outside the geoscience community, and ensure that all academic libraries, whether public or private, are encouraged to add it to their holdings. This should increase the chances of future writers of Canadian history finding and using this valuable resource.

Reviewed by Christy Vodden 398 Hinton Ave. S., Ottawa, Ontario K1Y 1B1

COPYRIGHT 2005 Geological Association of Canada

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