Frances Wagner | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Frances Wagner

Frances Joan Estelle Wagner, FRSC, micropaleontologist (born 28 May 1927 in Hamilton, ON; died 8 November 2016 in Falmouth, NS). Frances Wagner was a geologist and a pioneer in the field of micropaleontology. She mapped and dated geological layers of Canada’s land and oceans by studying microscopic fossils. She was among the first women to conduct field research for the Geological Survey of Canada as well as onboard a Canadian government research ship.

Dr. Frances Wagner was a micropaleontologist, a paleontologist who studies fossils that must be examined through a microscope.

Early Life and Education

Frances Wagner was born in Hamilton, Ontario and moved to York (now part of Toronto) as a small child. Wagner spent her childhood in the outdoors, fishing, canoeing, snowshoeing, hunting, riding horses and swimming. As a child at the family cottage in Muskoka, she was surrounded by the geology of the Canadian Shield. She reportedly roped her younger brother into helping her identify the over 50 lichen species near the cottage.

In 1948, Wagner earned a Bachelor of Science in Paleontology at the University of Toronto. The following summer, Wagner worked as a summer student for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), cataloguing items in the Victoria Museum collection in Ottawa. Continuing her studies at the University of Toronto, she graduated in 1950 with a master’s degree specializing in Invertebrate Paleontology.  During this degree, she was mentored by Alice Wilson, the first woman employed as a geologist at the GSC. Wagner conducted thesis research at Powder Magazine Quarry near Ottawa.

Early Career and Graduate Studies

After completing her master’s degree, Frances Wagner was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). The GSC was established in 1842 to map Canada’s geological resources. Wagner was one of the first three women hired by the GSC. Alice Wilson, Wagner’s mentor, had been the first. While Wilson conducted fieldwork with the GSC, she was not allowed to partake in overnight fieldwork trips.  Wilson advocated for the inclusion of women on these trips. In 1950, Wagner and geologist Helen Belyea were the first women allowed to participate in overnight fieldwork.

Wagner’s first fieldwork trip took her to Moose Factory in Northern Ontario, where she had to travel by canoe to reach most of her research locations. The only woman on the team, Wagner, was not welcomed by her male colleagues, who believed that women were not physically capable of carrying the required supplies and samples during fieldwork.

The GSC was looking for experts in Pleistocene paleontology, but no Canadian universities offered graduate degrees in the specialization at the time. The GSC sent Wagner to Stanford University in California to pursue further education in the field. She first completed a Master of Science in Geology before continuing with a Ph.D. specializing in micropaleontology.

At Stanford, Wagner was mentored by A. Myra Keen, a pioneering female scientist and professor who specialized in paleontology and malacology (the study of mollusks). In June 1954, Wagner returned to Ottawa to continue working for the GSC while completing her Ph.D. thesis, "Paleontology and Stratigraphy of the Marine Pleistocene Deposits of Southwestern British Columbia."

Career with the Geological Survey of Canada

Frances Wagner was at the forefront of the field of micropaleontology when it emerged in the 20th century. She studied microscopic fossils left behind eons ago to help determine and date the geological layers of Canada’s lands and oceans. Contributions from Wagner and other micropaleontologists greatly increased the understanding of Canada’s geological layers. At the start of Wagner’s career, only around 25 per cent of Canada’s geology was mapped. By the end of her career, that number had risen to about 66 per cent.

Wagner travelled throughout Canada to conduct fieldwork with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). She studied samples from coast to coast in Canada, from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. In the summer of 1965, Wagner joined the crew of the CSS Hudson, a 90-metre scientific research ship, to research on the floor of Hudson Bay. This made her one of the first women to conduct research aboard a Canadian government research vessel. Geologist Charlotte Keen had become the first woman to do so when she stowed aboard the ship the year before.

In 1967, Wagner moved to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, to continue working for the GSC at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, a marine research facility. During her career, Wagner’s areas of expertise included the Champlain Sea and the Beaufort Sea. She published academic journal articles and books on the geology of Canada’s land and seas.

Wagner was made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1973. In 1984, she retired after over 30 years with the GSC.

Personal Life

After her retirement, Frances Wagner remained in Nova Scotia, settling in Mount Uniacke, around 35 km northwest of Halifax. Along with her scientific interests, Wagner bred, trained and showed Shetland Sheepdogs. Through breeding, she helped save Norwegian Lundehunds, a rare dog breed, from extinction.

A Canadian Morgan Horse Association member, Wagner owned and trained Morgan horses in Ottawa and Nova Scotia. She helped found the Nova Scotia Historical Riding Society and gave demonstrations of side-saddle riding, which she had taught herself to do. She researched and learned how to sew historically accurate riding habits (women’s outfits for horseback riding) for her side-saddle demonstrations. She also created costumes for demonstrations by the Uniacke Heritage Society.

In 2013, Wagner suffered a stroke and was left with only the ability to move her face and hands. She died three years later, on 8 November 2016, in Falmouth, Nova Scotia.

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