Geoscience Histories: Dr. Frances Wagner

Three people standing on the deck of a boat with snow falling. Text on top of the photo reads: "Geoscience Histories, Frances Wagner"

Frances Wagner was one of Canada’s first female geologists. Her studies in micropaleontology and mapping of Canada’s microscopic fossils were groundbreaking to our understanding of the geology of the continental shelves around Canada, especially the Arctic. 

Frances was born in May of 1927 and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, spending summers enjoying nature at her family’s cottage on Mary Lake. She and her brother would identify the lichens on the Canadian Shield rocks and go canoeing and exploring. 

Wagner studied paleontology at the University of Toronto for her undergrad and went on to complete a Master’s degree in invertebrate paleontology at UofT. She researched Ordovician fossils near Ottawa under Dr. Alice Wilson (see our blog post on Dr. Wilson).

The summer before she completed her Master’s degree she was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) to catalogue fossil samples from the Victoria Museum in Ottawa. She was only the third woman to work at the GSC, in a time where women were considered too weak to do field work. Frances Wagner and her colleague Dr. Helen Belyea were some of the first women to work in the field at the GSC in the summer of 1950 with the support of Dr. Alice Wilson.

Four people stand on the deck of a boat watching a large orange device hanging off the side of the boat.
Wagner aboard a vessel bringing up a device used to drag the sea floor for sediments containing microscopic fossils. Photo used with permission courtesy of science.ca.

Wagner went on to complete her PhD in micropaleontology at Stanford University in California. Her thesis was supervised by another groundbreaking female geoscientist Dr. Myra Keen. Her thesis was on marine Pleistocene deposits in southwestern British Columbia. She studied with a Geological Survey of Canada work party on the coast of British Columbia and shipped 350 pounds of samples from British Columbia to California to complete her studies. Her PhD allowed her to pioneer the study of marine micropaleontology. In 1954 Wagner returned to Ottawa to work full time at the GSC and complete her thesis at the same time. In order to complete her PhD she travelled three days by train to Stanford and three days back for her oral exam.

In 1964, Wagner’s colleague Charlotte Keen was the first woman to travel on a research ship. The next summer, Dr. Wagner joined Keen and a few other women on the CSS Hudson to map the floor of Hudson’s Bay. The CSS Hudson was the first ship to circumnavigate North America. Wagner joined the ship as it traversed the dangerous Northwest Passage. This was a particularly perlious journey, and they concluded that the Northwest Passage was unsafe for travel. Chief Scientist Dr. Bernard Pelletier wrote in the ship report that at one point, “[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.” This is just a taste of the danger that Dr. Pelletier wrote in the report. While on the CSS Hudson, Dr. Wagner studied the ecological history of the Beaufort Sea and published groundbreaking work on the topic.

Three people standing on the deck of a boat with snow falling around them.
Frances Wagner with scientific staff aboard CSS Hudson in 1970 in the Northwest Passage. Photo used with permission courtesy of science.ca.

In 1967, Dr. Wagner moved to Nova Scotia to work for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. She used her experience in marine micropaleontology to study the microbiota of the Arctic and Atlantic continental shelves. In 1973 Dr. Wagner was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. In 1979 she co-authored a second paper on the Beaufort Shelf, this one focusing on the effects of disturbances, such as hydrocarbon drilling, on the marine ecology of the area.

Outside of her career, Frances was an avid horsewoman. She owned two registered Morgan horses, Belle and Jay. She raised Jay from 5 months old and rode him for 24 years. She helped found the Nova Scotia Historical Riding Society and learned to ride sidesaddle in order to do demonstrations of traditional riding techniques at different Museum sites in Nova Scotia. She also researched and sewed traditional clothing for the Uniacke Heritage Society.

Wagner was also a dog breeder. She had a kennel called Thicketwood where she bred Shetland Sheepdogs. She helped save the rare Norwegian Lundehund from extinction, importing them to Canada and breeding and showing them. Once she retired in 1984, she focused more of her time and attention on her dog breeding and horseback riding. She always had a love for the outdoors, and was an accomplished canoeist and long distance swimmer. 

Wagner never married or had kids. When asked about it she said, “I was a career girl.” In Wagner’s day there was a lot of prejudice against women in the workplace getting married or having families. In Canada there was a law in place that allowed employers to fire female employees if they married. This legislation was only repealed in 1955, when Wagner was already 28 years old.

Headshot of Dr. Frances Wagner. The photo is in black and white and she is standing in front of a map.

Dr. Wagner had an immense influence on the field of micropaleontology in Canada. You can read one of Dr. Wagner’s publications, “Fossils of Ontario: Part 2: Macroinvertebrates and vertebrates of the Champlain Sea,” published by the Royal Ontario museum. Along with her female colleagues, she defied expectations and made major contributions to her field doing work that was previously considered improper or too difficult for women.


Sources: 

Science.ca Scientist Profile Frances Wagner

Trowelblazers Frances Wagner

NecroCanada Obituaries Frances Wagner

Ada Lovelace Day Dr Frances Wagner

Paleontology and stratigraphy of the marine Pleistocene deposits of Southwestern British Columbia.

Fossils of Ontario: Part 2: Macroinvertebrates and vertebrates of the Champlain Sea


Woman smiling at the camera wearing a light blue sweater and short blonde hair

Author Veronica Klassen is the Manager of the Foundation’s blog – Beneath Your Feet: A Geoscience Blog. She studied Arts and Science at McMaster University with a minor in Earth Science and has a masters in Science Communication from Laurentian University. She is passionate about making science accessible and engaging to the public.

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