Dr. Alice Wilson

Awards and Recognition

  • First woman hired by the Geological Survey of Canada, 1909
  • One of the first two women elected as Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, 1930
  • Member of the Order of the British Empire, 1935
  • First Canadian woman named Fellow of the Geological Society of America, 1936
  • First woman to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, 1938
  • Namesake of the Royal Society of Canada’s Alice Wilson Awards for emergin women scholarship, 1991
  • Inducted to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, 2005
  • Recognized as a “person of national historic significance at the Canadian Museum of Nature” by the Government of Canada, 2018


Alice Wilson grew up in Cobourg Ontario in 1881 to Dr. John Wilson, a classics professor at the University of Toronto. Her childhood canoeing and camping trips alongside her father and two brothers sparked her interest in fossils and geology.

In 1901, she started studying modern language and history at the Victoria College in Toronto, with the goal of becoming a teacher. Due to health problems, she was unable to finish her studies right away; she eventually obtained her degree in 1911.  Prior to graudation, she moved to Ottawa to become a part of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), where she sould stay for the next 54 years. Though she wanted to continue her education and earn a Ph.D., the Geological Survey repeatedly denied her request for leave. After many years of persistence, she was awarded a scholarship by the Canadian Federation of University Women’s Club in 1926; she was granted leave and obtained her Ph.D. in 1929. She studied at the University of Chicago, her thesis focusing on the study of geology and paleontology in the region of Cornwall, Ontario. Though she had obtained her Ph.D., her colleagues would not refer to her as a Doctor until 16 years later, in 1945.

During the First World War, the Victoria Memorial Museum, which housed the Geological Survey of Canada, was shut down and used as a war-time parliament. During that period, Alice self-funded her projects, studying comparative anatomy and marine biology in New York. She later joined the war effort, become a member of the equivalent of the Women’s Land Army. At the end of the war, she returned to the GSC, now as an Assistant Paleontologist.

Because men and women were not allowed to work together in the field, Alice created her own niche and did fieldwork in the Ottawa region, mapping over 14,000 km of the Ottawa St Lawrence Lowlands on her own. Her work was published in 1946 and was the first major geological publication about the area. She not only discussed the area’s geology, but also covered the area’s economic resources. She also made significant contributions to the understanding of the stratigraphy and invertebrate palaeontology of the Palaeozoic strata of eastern Canada, though that contribution wasn’t recognized until after her retirement.

From 1948 to 1958, she was a lecturer in Paleontology at Carleton College (now Carleton University). Carleton University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1960 to recognize her contributions as a geologist and teacher. She became a well-respected member of the GSC and mentored many young geologists through her lectures, field trips, publications and museum exhibits.

She officially retired in 1946, at the age of 65, as required by law. Five people were hired to take her place. However, she kept her office at the GSSC and continued working, despite not being paid, until her death in 1964.