Museum of Nature: Exhibition about women in science honours Canadian trailblazers

Anne Innis Dagg is seen here in her vehicle in South Africa in 1956 when she was studying giraffes in the wild. She is one of the trailblazers in the Museum of Nature's exhibition. This is from the film The Woman Who Loved Giraffes, a movie about Innis Dagg's life.

As the country debates the SNC-Lavalin affair and the treatment of women in politics, an exhibition at the Museum of Nature reveals much about the history of Canadian female scientists. And it’s not a particularly pretty picture.

Courage and Passion: Canadian Women in Natural Sciences was assembled by a team at the museum led by Cindy Stelmackowich, who is an artist, academic at Carleton University and a curator. It will be on until the end of March and it details the issues confronting women in science and reveals 20 important figures in the history of science done by women in Canada.

The Museum of Nature is itself an important example of gender equity in science. It is led by Meg Beckel and of the 47 scientific staff – including researchers and curators/collections — 23 are women. So the exhibition seems a natural fit.

Catherine Parr Traill. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of Nature

“We decided at the beginning that we wanted to tell some of the stories of Canadian women in science,” Stelmackowich said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “We felt we had to find trailblazers” to serve as inspiration for this generation of young women who want to work in these fields. Because the museum deals with the natural sciences, such as botany and biology, the scientists presented worked in those fields.

Stelmackowich and her team reached into the early days of New France to begin.

For example. “we found that the nuns who were working at the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal in the 17th century had this knowledge of plants.” They were cultivating herbs and turning the plants into medicines.

The museum team realized that role of women through such acquired knowledge occurred early on in human development. Many Indigenous women were doing the same things for thousands of years. These women in 17th century in Quebec were also midwives. They were practicing science, Stelmackowich said.


So was Catherine Parr Traill, who gathered plant samples on her journeys in Canada in the 19th century, She, along with her daughter and granddaughter, kept the samples and documented what they saw. Some of her collection is on display. The museum has the largest collection of her work, Stelmackowich said.

Over the centuries, however, the role of men in science and in science education has excluded and impeded women, she said.

“Women, for many years, were not allowed to go to university in Canada. Then they were not allowed to get degrees in science.”

It was even harder to get doctorates and positions in labs or with governments. Certain kinds of field research were deemed inappropriate, she said.

She says she believes the kind of thinking that excluded women was sparked by the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century.

“It was all very gendered. It was only male and all male. Women were to be in the home. Men could pursue a professional career. If a woman had an interest in botany or geology it was seen as an anomaly and it wasn’t supported.”

Until the middle of the 20th century, marriage could end a woman’s career. The exhibition shows that in the story of Harriet Brooks, Canada’s first female nuclear physicist and one of the first to discover radon gas. She worked with Nobel laureate Marie Curie. She retired from her career at 31 after her marriage. 

Alice Wilson. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of Nature

Women scientists were often assigned clerical duties and excluded from field work. That happened to Alice Wilson, who was the first female geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. She persevered and found a way to examine the geology and geography of her own surroundings and continue her passion.

There are some real world consequences to these kinds of exclusion.

One of the most obvious is the growing awareness that women experience health issues differently from men, Stelmackowich said. Heart attacks, for example, present differently.

“The test subject has been the male body. It is only within the last couple of decades that the idea that the studies don’t fit when they are carried over to the female. Women have different hormones. Their anatomy is different as is their physiognomy.” She said that even childbirth and menopause are  under-studied.

Stelmackowich said that when the team was looking at this situation, the team discovered that despite much conversation about these kinds of inequities, the system is still not that open to women.

“We ended up finding there were still some disciplines that are so hard to get entry into. These are fields such as physics, mathematics, certain areas of engineering. That was surprising to me.”

To change these hard to amend attitudes, the team designing the exhibition decided they needed to provide role models for young girls.

“They need to know it is possible and there have been women scientists.”

The stories also explain the obstacles women face, she said.

“It has improved but there is still some resistance, for example, on the level of peer review publishing or to recognizing that women scientists may need time off to have children.

“There are still many challenges. It’s not OK that a woman can’t become a department head at a university.” Nor is it OK for young women to be socialized to think science is not cool. It is still the case, Stelmackowich said, that “if girls choose to stay in science in high school they are labelled a nerd. It’s a type of social suicide.”

The exhibition quotes one young woman saying that she had wanted a microscope for Christmas and got a doll instead.

The exhibition was two years in the making. It opened last spring. It is a different kind of exhibition for a museum that usually features minerals, butterflies and dinosaurs. One part discusses the challenges women face in science and the other part talks about the trailblazers.

The key artifact in the latter part of the exhibition is 16 foot tall skeleton of a giraffe drawn from the museums own collection. It is part of the explanation of the career of Canada’s Anne Innis Dagg, who was the first scientist to study these animals in the field. Her career was frustrated when the University of Guelph refused her admission into their doctorate program. The university has recently apologized to her for this slight. Her story has been told in the movie The Woman Who Loved Giraffes.

The timeline also includes some contemporary scientists such as Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysicist who is the first woman to receive the Herzberg medal; Joyce Boye, a food scientist with a focus on food security in developing countries; Gwen Bridge, a forest hydrologist and member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and Kathy Conlan, a marine biologist at the Museum of Nature who has studied marine biodiversity while diving under the Arctic and Antarctic ice.

Artifacts on display include microscopes, electroscopes, a spore counter, a grain sterilizer, fossils, marine creatures, minerals and typical office equipment of the day. These come from the museum’s own collection along with from other institutions including Carleton University, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada and the Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel Dieu de Montréal.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.