Alice’s adventures in geology

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Alice Wilson overcame many barriers to become the first female geologist in Canada. She was unable to receive her PhD until she was 49 years old.

Molly Gatt

Women in Canada earned the right to vote from 1916-1919, with the exception of Quebec, where women were unable to vote until 1940. However, gaining higher education was a different matter entirely.

Alice Wilson, the first female geologist in Canada, first attempted to receive her PhD in 1915. But she was denied for over a decade, only earning it in 1929 at the age of 49. Wilson had a lot of difficulty, as did most women in those days, having a position of authority in a male dominated field. She worked at the Geological Survey of Canada her entire life, except from 1926-1929 when she received a paid leave to earn her doctorate in geology. But even with her PhD she was denied promotions and was kept in menial jobs.

Being unable to work with male colleagues also put Wilson at a disadvantage. At the time, being the only woman on a worksite was socially unacceptable. Instead she studied in the Ottawa-Saint Lawrence Valley alone – getting there on foot, by bicycle and eventually by car for 50 years.

Wilson was required by law to go into retirement at 65, but she kept her office at the Survey and continued her work until she died in 1964. Wilson was the first woman to become a member of the Royal Society of Canada and was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2005.

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