Forgotten women of paleontology: Alice Wilson

Alice Wilson (1881-1964) From Wikimedia Commons

Alice Evelyn Wilson was born on August 26, 1881 in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. She grew up in a family full of scientist. Her father was a pharmacist and her elder brother, Alfred, was a geologist working at the Mines Branch of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). Her maternal grandfather, William Kingston, a professor of mathematics and amateur geologist, was also a great influence in Alice’s life.

In 1901, Alice Wilson attended the University of Toronto with the intention to become a teacher but left the university in her third year due to her health issues and the death of her father. She returned to University in 1907 as an assistant in the mineralogy department. Two years later she joined the staff of the GSC in the paleontological division. She completed her degree at the University of Toronto in 1911.

Alice Wilson in her office © Natural Resources Canada | Ressources Naturelles Canada.

Unfortunately, the director of the GSC at this time stated: “Physically and sexually Miss Wilson is not fitted for any but the lightest sort of field work, and only in settled districts. An undesirable condition would be created by attempting to fit her for field work.” That didn’t intimidated Alice, so she turned her attention to the rocks of the Ottawa- St. Lawrence Valley districts, an area easily accessible from her home and characterized by its rich deposits from the Ordovician Period. In 1919, Alice Wilson was promoted to Assistant Paleontologist, and by 1921, the GSC bulletin published the first results of her work. She devoted the next 50 years to explore the St. Lawrence area.

Alice Wilson. From Sarjeant, 1993

Alice Wilson. From Sarjeant, 1993

After seven years of limitations impossed by the Survey (they denied her time off to pursue a higher degree in geology), the Canadian Federation of University Women awarded her a scholarship so that she could embark on graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Finally, at the age of 48, she graduated with a doctorate in geology and shortly after returned to the GSC .

Throughout her prolific career, Alice Wilson published numerous scientific papers and a children’s book on geology. She was also a mentor and an inspiration for many women. In 1936 she was elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America, and two years later she become the first woman selected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She died on April 15, 1964.



William Sarjeant; Alice Wilson, First Woman Geologist With The Geological Survey of Canada. Earth Sciences History 1 January 1993; 12 (2): 122–128. doi: