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Dr. Frances Wagner: Adventurous micropaleontologist flouted convention

Frances Wagner, centre, receiving a service certificate marking 25 years with the Canadian Geological Survey, Dartmouth N.S., 1975. To her left and right, respectively, are Dr. Dale Buckley, Head of Marine Geology and Dr. Bosko Loncarevic, Director of the Atlantic Geosciences Centre.

At a time when female scientists were a rarity, Frances Wagner embarked on a career in micropaleontology, becoming a distinguished expert and embracing the rough-and-tumble life of a field researcher for the Geological Survey of Canada. Dr. Wagner, who died on Nov. 8 at the age of 89 in Falmouth, N.S., not only advanced her discipline, she led the way for other women to succeed in non-traditional fields.

Frances Joan Estelle Wagner was born on May 28, 1927, in Hamilton, Ont., to Harold and Muriel Wagner (née Konkle). At Wagshack, the family cottage on Muskoka's Mary Lake, about 250 kilometres north of Hamilton, young Frances spent her youth fishing and canoeing in summer, snowshoeing in winter, and hunting all year round. She also became an accomplished horsewoman and distance swimmer, and once badgered her younger brother into helping her identify every species of lichen near the cottage (they found more than 50).

Her early experiences proved an ideal preparation for a career in scientific field research conducted under trying conditions. Muskoka lies in the Canadian Shield, a swath of ancient metamorphic and igneous rock whose overburden has been scraped away by glaciation. To an active mind, Muskoka offers endless stimulation, both in its Precambrian geology and in the multitudinous ways in which life has colonized a stern terrain.

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Dr. Wagner's undergraduate focus was paleontology, the study of fossilized remnants of ancient organisms. She graduated in 1948 with a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and then pursued a master's degree in invertebrate (stratigraphic) paleontology, conducting research for her thesis at the Powder Magazine Quarry, near Ottawa. This began her lifelong scientific focus on field research.

Dr. Wagner received her master's in 1950 and was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada, starting work the day she turned 23. She was not merely the only woman on a small field team investigating Canada's geology east of James Bay; she was one of only three female scientists then employed by GSC. Dr. Wagner's colleague Dr. Helen Belyea was mapping the geology of the newly discovered Alberta oil fields; Dr. Alice Wilson, her MA supervisor and the GSC's first female scientist, had lobbied for Dr. Wagner's inclusion. The prevailing attitude at the time, not just at the GSC but throughout North America, was that women were too fragile for the rigours of the geobiological field; Dr. Wagner soon refuted this view. Taking Ontario's northern rail system to the end of the line, then canoeing on to Moose Factory, was something Dr. Wagner handled at least as ably as her male companions.

A year after her foray into wilderness fieldwork, Dr. Wagner went to Stanford University, in California, to begin a doctorate in Pleistocene paleontology, in which no Canadian university then offered a graduate degree. Her PhD, in 1954, recognized her expertise in a sub-specialty in which she would become pre-eminent: micropaleontology, the study of single-celled fossils such as pollen and plankton. According to science.ca, a site co-sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada, these tiny remnants of past ages "provide a picture of ancient ecologies, including the depth, salinity, pH [acidity], and temperature of the water, all of which are useful in mineral exploration and studies of changes in sea level, currents and climate."

In other words, these tiny bio-remnants can have massive consequences for our understanding of biogeological prehistory and for modern-day resource development.

Since micropaleontologists retrieve their field samples through rock coring of ancient seabeds that tectonic processes have raised into dry-land geology, as well as by dredging existing seabeds, Dr. Wagner's fieldwork took her from inland quarries and rock-faces to saltwater investigations. In 1970 she worked as a micropaleontologist aboard the newly commissioned CSS Hudson, a 90-metre research vessel that was the first ship to circumnavigate the Americas. Chief scientist on this incredible voyage was Dr. Bernard Pelletier, who had recently been appointed head of the Marine Geology Section of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Dartmouth, N.S.

While written in the cool language of scientific reports, Dr. Pelletier's Northwest Passage research log reads like an adventure novel. At one point the Hudson "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" – that is, her normally horizontal decks tilted halfway to the vertical. In sum, the Hudson expedition considered the Northwest Passage "not safe for shipping." Of course, this conclusion is being reassessed now that Arctic pack ice, reduced by global warming, increasingly opens Canada's northern continental shelf to oil and mineral exploration, as well to commercial surface traffic by container ships and oil and liquefied natural gas supertankers.

In 1967, Dr. Pelletier persuaded Dr. Wagner to join him at his Bedford Institute laboratory on the East Coast. There, in 1979, she co-authored a definitive study with Dr. Pelletier and Dr. Gus Vilks: The Holocene Marine Environment of the Beaufort Shelf. D.J. McLaren, then director-general of the GSC, said in its preface: "With exploration for hydrocarbons moving into Canadian Arctic waters, more information is needed for a better understanding of the highly sensitive Arctic marine environment where relatively small interferences with natural processes may result in pronounced disturbances. … This Bulletin will be of interest to the companies engaged in drilling operations on the Beaufort Shelf."

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The Maritimes remained Dr. Wagner's home for the rest of her life. In 1984, after gruelling field investigations that had taken her from the Caribbean to the Beaufort and from the Bay of Fundy to the Salish Sea, Dr. Wagner retired from the GSC.

Settling in Mount Uniacke, N.S., she pursued her long-standing interest in Morgan horses, teaching herself to ride sidesaddle – as well-bred ladies of British descent did well into the 20th century – and demonstrated this near-vanished art at various venues throughout Nova Scotia. Dr. Wagner bred Shetland Sheepdogs and was instrumental in saving the rare Norwegian Lundehund hunting breed from disappearance.

In 2013, Dr. Wagner suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak or move any part of her body other than her face and hands. Anne Bishop, a volunteer at the care home, met Dr. Wagner after her stroke. Despite the impossibility of verbal dialogue, Ms. Bishop was able to establish a close friendship with Dr. Wagner, whose mind, though partly veiled, was still razor-sharp.

"Our communication with her was a matter of close observation and small cues – a chuckle, a raised eyebrow," Ms. Bishop wrote in an e-mail. "We visited three times a week, reading friends' notes and letters to her, keeping enclosed photographs in an album and keeping her friends up to date as best we could. We also took in books from her huge personal library and read to her. As a result, we spent a great deal of time with her and learned a great deal about her. … When we settled in to read to her, she lit up and, even with very little movement or strength left to her, she wanted to hold her side of the book" – the feminist scientific pioneer was dynamic to the last.

Dr. Wagner was predeceased by her parents, Harold and Muriel Wagner; and by her younger brother, David Wagner.

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