Frances Wagner Paleontology, paleobiology

Pioneer in the use of micropaleontology to map Canada's terrestrial and marine geology. The third woman to work as a scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada and one of the first two to be included in fieldwork.

The Story

"Mom left for Toronto this morning. Now I am completely on my own." 

Many of us would recognize that feeling on the day we were left at our first apartment, job or college dorm. When Frances Wagner wrote those words on May 30, 1950, two days after she started work with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) on her 23rd birthday, she was about to board a train and travel to the end of the line before climbing into a canoe to reach her first work site at Moose Factory, Ontario.  She travelled to most of her research locations that summer by canoe. 

She was the only woman in the field party, and not welcome. At the time, it was thought women were not strong enough to carry a backpack full of rock samples and it was unseemly for them to camp in the wilderness with a group of men. Frances Wagner's mentor throughout her Master's degree, Dr. Alice Wilson, was the first woman to work as a geologist in Canada and the first woman employed as a scientist by the GSC, starting in 1909. Her studies had been limited to the Ottawa Valley because she was never allowed to stay out overnight. With her support, two young female scientists went into the field in the summer of 1950. Dr. Helen Belyea, who had been employed as a scientist at the Geological Survey since 1947, was assigned to monitor the first oilfields in Alberta, and Wagner went with the Moose Factory expedition to map the geology east of James Bay. Later, she would laugh about the tremendous resistance she met from senior male colleagues, but it could not have been easy at the time. The acceptance of women in fieldwork and on research ships did not become routine until the 1970s. By then there were almost thirty female scientists on staff. The first woman scientist to work on a Canadian government research ship was Charlotte Keen, a geophysics graduate student, smuggled aboard in the Strait of Canso in 1964. The next summer, a small group of women, including both Charlotte Keen and Frances Wagner, worked aboard the CSS Hudson surveying the floor of Hudson's Bay.

Wagner began to focus on geology and paleontology in the senior years of her Batchelor of Arts degree at Victoria College, University of Toronto. She graduated in 1948 and returned to the University of Toronto that fall for graduate studies in Invertebrate Paleontology. Her MA was completed in 1950. Dr Alice Wilson was her field supervisor during her thesis research on the stratigraphy of Powder Magazine Quarry, near Ottawa. 

One small, black-and-white photograph survives of Wagner's fieldwork in the Quarry. It shows an athletic young woman standing on a ledge high on the quarry face, geologist's hammer in one hand, shoulder-length hair blowing in the wind and jeans rolled up to the knee. 

The Geological Survey of Canada employed Wagner as a student during the summer of 1949 cataloguing its collection at the Victoria Museum in Ottawa. She became a full-time employee when she graduated the following spring. After her first field expedition that summer, she began studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The Geological Survey needed to develop expertise in some areas not taught in Canada, notably Pleistocene paleontology. By the spring of 1952, Wagner had completed an MSc in Geology and joined a GSC work party surveying the southwest coast of British Columbia. In September, she shipped 350 pounds of specimens back to Stanford and returned there to finish her PhD courses and begin her thesis, "Paleontology and Stratigraphy of the Marine Pleistocene Deposits of Southwestern British Columbia." Wagner's mentor at Stanford was another early female geologist, Dr Myra Keen. 

Many of her specimens were shipped to Ottawa when Wagner returned to full time work at the GSC in June 1954, where she continued work on her thesis. After its acceptance, she traveled by train for three days each way to take her oral examination in California. Her PhD in Paleontology was conferred on October 1, 1954. 

Fran Wagner on the CSS Hudson in the Northwest Passage

Image: Frances Wagner with scientific staff aboard CSS Hudson in 1970 in the Northwest Passage.

Thus began a life of adventure and science, along the way becoming, in the words of a colleague, a "world-class micropaleontologist." When Wagner went to work for the GSC, only a quarter of Canada's geology had been mapped. During the 30 years of her career, two-thirds of the country's underlying layers were defined in detail, including the continental shelves, thanks to the development of new technology that made better and deeper studies possible. Micropaleontology, the study of microscopic fossils, was one of these emerging technologies. Although the field had been recognized as a specialty within paleontology by the beginning of the twentieth century, it only came into its own as a stratigraphic tool in the 1950s, making Wagner one of the Canadian pioneers in this area of study. Microscopic creatures evolve relatively quickly and spread over vast areas. Then when they die, they typically settle to the sea floor in thick deposits, where they can become accurate indicators of date layers when taken from core samples drilled from cliff faces, or dredged from the bottom of the ocean. They can provide a picture of ancient ecologies, including the depth, salinity, pH, and temperature of the water, all of which are useful in mineral exploration and studies of changes in sea level, currents and climate. 

Wagner traveled by boat, truck, aircraft, canoe, foot and helicopter to study the minute fossils of the Ottawa Valley, Quebec, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, and the Arctic islands. She became an expert on the Champlain Sea, which covered parts of Ontario and Quebec at the end of the last the Ice Age. As part of the Marine Geology Unit of the GSC, formed in 1959, she worked on samples and cores from the sea floor of the Arctic and Atlantic Continental Shelves, Hudson's Bay and its ancient predecessor, the Tyrell Sea, the Eastern Caribbean Sea, the Strait of Canso, Bay of Fundy, Gulf of Maine, Labrador Shelf, Miramichi Bay and the Beaufort Sea. She published books and papers, and compared notes with other scientists at conferences all over North America. Her reference book, Fossils of Ontario Part 2: Macroinvertebrates and Vertebrates of the Champlain Sea, published by the Royal Ontario Museum, went through many printings and is still available through the ROM Library and online.

In 1964, the Canadian government took delivery of Canada's largest and only purpose-built scientific research ship, the 296-foot CSS Hudson, to operate out of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth NS. The Hudson became a pioneering exploration ship as well.  During the summer of 1965, she was home to a group of scientists studying the geology beneath Hudson's Bay. Wagner spent the month of August aboard, flying out by helicopter to collect samples from island beaches. From November 1969 to October 1970, the Hudson became the first ship to circumnavigate the Americas and the first research ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, only the fourth ship other than an icebreaker or submarine to make that perilous journey. 128 scientists from many disciplines took part in different segments of the voyage. Wagner was aboard during August and September for the passage from Victoria BC to Resolute NWT, including half of the Northwest Passage and the voyage's most northerly point at the eastern end of the Prince of Wales Strait. She used the samples gathered during the trip to publish groundbreaking research on the ecological history of the Beaufort Sea. 

The cruise report for this leg of the journey was written by Chief Scientist Dr. Bernard Pelletier, leader of the group of scientists with which Wagner worked in Ottawa. It gives a taste of the challenges, describing seas that "poured over the foredeck," an explosion in a generator that nearly curtailed the voyage, fog, snow, gale-force winds, forming ice and course adjustments, sometimes sailing uncomfortably close to shore, to avoid the southward-moving ice pack which still succeeded in stopping the ship's progress several times. The report's account goes beyond adventure into the realm of hair-raising when Dr. Pelletier says "[the ship] rode up onto a particularly hard floe and slid off one side thereby heeling to port so abruptly and steeply that her guardrail almost touched the broken sea ice." Twice during this part of the trip the Hudson was called on to participate in rescues, the first on the second day out when a call was received from a group of divers in trouble, and the second when "the ship was literally flagged down by a priest and an Inuit party in an outboard motor boat, who asked for assistance in the search for three walrus hunters from a nearby village who went missing on the ice." On both occasions the Hudson responded until relieved by the appropriate police force. One of the conclusions from the CSS Hudson's voyage through the Northwest Passage was that the route was not safe for shipping. 

In 1963 Dr Pelletier moved to Dartmouth to become head of the Marine Geology Section of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Most of his team went with him and Frances Wagner followed a year later, although her home was still in Ottawa. She finally moved to Dartmouth in 1967, bringing her parents with her. She provided a home for them for twenty years.

Wagner belonged to a number of professional associations, including the Paleontological Society of America and the Friends of the Pleistocene. She was named a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1973. 

Wagner remained in Nova Scotia when she retired from the GSC in 1984 and began to pursue more actively her interests outside of science. Dogs had been part of her household since 1956 and starting in 1970 she bred Shetland Sheepdogs under the kennel name of Thicketwood. In retirement she became more deeply involved in breeding, training and showing her Shelties. In 1990, she became the second Canadian to import Norwegian Lundehunds, a breed that was close to extinction at the time and is still very rare. She bred them for the next 20 years, organized shows and facilitated their acceptance as a breed by the Canadian Kennel Club. 

While still living in Ottawa, Wagner bought her first registered Morgan horse, Anabelle Ashmore , called Belle. In 1968, after the move to Dartmouth, she bought her second Morgan, Towne-Ayre Firebird, called Jay. She trained him from the age of 5 months, riding and showing him for 24 years. In retirement, she learned to ride sidesaddle, researching and sewing her own historically accurate ladies' riding habits. A founding member of the Nova Scotia Historical Riding Society, she gave sidesaddle riding demonstrations at several Nova Scotia Museum sites, including Uniacke House in Mount Uniacke and Ross Farm in New Ross. Wagner was a member of the Canadian Morgan Horse Association for 45 years. She was also an active member of the Uniacke Heritage Society for almost 20 years, researching and sewing costumes of various periods for Society demonstrations and events. 

When asked recently if she has children, Wagner's response was, "No, I was a career girl," but she was more than that. She was a pioneer. In the 1950s, it was official government policy to actively discourage women from taking part in the paid workforce. It was assumed that "career girls" would give up marriage and family, and female scientists had to fight to take part in field research. Hardworking, determined, adventurous and brave, Frances Wagner blazed a trail for the women scientists who followed.

Dr. F.J. E. Wagner
Dr. C.E. Keen
Dr. B.L. Loncarevic
Bedford Institute of Oceanography Annual Review, 1965 to 1984
Pelletier, Bernard R. Hudson 70 Interim Cruise Report, Victoria to Resolute Bay. Bedford Institute of Oceanography, 1987.
Wagner, F.J. E. Paleontology and Stratigraphy of the Marine Pleistocene deposits of Southwestern British Columbia. PhD Thesis, Stanford University, 1954.
Zaslow, Morris. Reading the Rocks: The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada 1842-1972. (Toronto: MacMillan. 1975)

As A Young Scientist...

Frances Wagner was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1927, growing up in Toronto and at "Wagshack," her family's beloved cottage on Mary Lake in Muskoka. She came from a close-knit, outdoor-oriented family. With parents Harold and Muriel (Konkle) Wagner and younger brother David, she explored the Muskoka district--fishing, canoeing, hunting partridge, distance swimming, hiking, picnicking, snowshoeing and horseback riding.

Muskoka is part of the Canadian Shield, where stubborn trees cling to bare rock and the stone skeleton of the earth is exposed. If any landscape is capable of inspiring a love of geology, this one can, and did.  

Her passion for a scientific approach to nature also emerged early in Frances' life. A friend remembers Frances in her teens challenging her and her brothers to help identify all the species of lichen growing along the stone path to their cottage. They found more than fifty.

She continued to challenge the young people in her life to observe and think about their surroundings. When she first went to Ottawa, she lived with a young family and agreed to take care of the children for part of each weekend. As adults, they fondly remember the field trips she arranged for them, especially when they went hunting for fossils in the quarry where she was doing research for her MA in Invertebrate Paleontology. The experience inspired a lifelong passion and knowledgeable approach to nature in both of them.  

Writer: Anne Bishop

The Science

Micropaleontology is a relatively young (20th century) specialty within the larger field of palaeontology. It studies fossils too small to be seen by the naked eye. The tiny creatures that left their evidence behind over eons of time represent every type of life from shelled creatures and fish jaw-parts to plankton and plant pollen (pollen fossils are sometimes studied as a sub-specialty called palynology). Microfossils are useful in defining and dating geological layers because they are extremely common and widespread, leaving deep layers on the floors of oceans and lakes, but come and go relatively quickly from the stratigraphic record. They are important for the study of environmental change because they provide evidence not only of sediment accumulation, but many other features of the ecology of their time, such as water depth, salinity, Ph and temperature.

Fran Wagner on board a ship dredging the seabed for microfossils

Image: Wagner aboard a vessel bringing up a device used to drag the sea floor for sediments containing microscopic fossils.

Microfossils come from rock samples collected on land, the sea floor or by core drilling. They are separated from the surrounding rock by physical and chemical laboratory techniques such as grinding, chemical digestion and floatation, then identified and counted under a light or electron microscope. Even a small sample can provide hundreds of microfossils.

Micropaleontology is an important tool in geological mapping, mineral exploration, ecological and climate change research, even forensic investigation and archeology.

Information on micropaleontology and photographs of microfossils can be found at websites of the University College London Micropaleontology Unit, the University of Arizona Geology Department, and the Wikipedia article on micropaleontology.

Career ideas:

  • Paleontologist

The Person

May 28, 1927
Hamilton, Ontario
Date of Death
November 8, 2016
Place of Death
Falmouth, Nova Scotia
Family Members
  • Parents: Harold and Muriel (Konkle) Wagner
  • Brother: David Wagner
Other Interests
Dogs and horses, particularly Shetland Sheepdogs and Norwegian Lundehunds and Morgan horses. Nature, outdoor sports, gardening, books, local history, historical costume, sidesaddle riding, and textile arts.
Research Scientist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
  • BA University of Toronto, 1948
  • MA (Invertebrate Paleontology), University of Toronto, 1950
  • MSc (Geology), Stanford, 1952
  • PhD (Paleontology), Stanford, 1954
  • Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, 1973
Alice Wilson, who guided Wagner at the Geological Survey of Canada; Myra Keen, who was her thesis advisor in the Geology Department, Stanford University
Last Updated
November 18, 2016

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