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Tyrrell, Joseph Burr (1858–1957)

J.B. Tyrrell, 1886.
University of Toronto, Fisher Rare Book Library MS Collection 26, Box P282

Born on November 1, 1858, in Weston, Joseph Burr Tyrrell was one of several pioneer geo-scientists responsible for surveying the west in the late 19th century. Graduating from the University of Toronto in 1881, he was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada and worked there until his resignation in January 1899. After a period as assistant geologist he conducted numerous geological surveys, making important mineralogical and paleontological discoveries. His work in what is now Saskatchewan began during reconnaissance surveys of Manitoba (1887– 91) that included a strip of land extending west of Yorkton between the Qu’Appelle Valley and the Churchill River. In the 1888 field season, Tyrrell contracted typhoid and almost died.

In 1892 Tyrrell surveyed the lands between Lake Athabasca and the Churchill River, assisted by D.B. Dowling. Dowling started from Edmonton, traveling to Fond du Lac via Lake Athabasca. Tyrrell began at Prince Albert, traveling via Green Lake to Ile-à-la-Crosse and then by way of Cree Lake to Black Lake. They met at Fond du Lac and explored the region between Lake Athabasca and Wollaston Lake before separating again. Dowling’s party then surveyed the route from Wollaston to Reindeer Lake before traveling up the Churchill River to Ile-à-la-Crosse. Tyrrell aimed for the same destination, but through uncharted territory along the Geikie River. In his report on the region, Tyrrell describes the terrain, and maps observed rock types and glacial features.

The routes through Lake Athabasca and Reindeer Lake were used again during epic journeys made by Tyrrell into the Barren lands in 1893 and 1894. In the first of these he was accompanied by his younger brother; his goal was to follow a route north of Black Lake that had been observed the previous summer. The second journey into the Barrens began on Lake Winnipeg and proceeded via Reindeer Lake to Hudson Bay.

After his resignation from the Survey, Tyrrell worked successfully as a mining consultant. Although he specialized as a geologist, he was also trained as a botanist and zoologist. His interest in exploration led him to edit the diaries of Samuel Hearne and David Thompson. He received many honours in his life including the Flavelle Gold medal from the Royal Society of Canada. Tyrrell died in Toronto on August 26, 1957.

Marilyn Lewry

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Further Reading

Inglis, A. 1978. Northern Vagabond: The Life and Career of J.B. Tyrrell. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; Tyrrell, J.B. and D.B. Dowling. 1896. Report on the Country Between Athabasca Lake and Churchill River. Geological Survey of Canada Annual Report (new series), Vol. 8, 1D–120D; Zaslow, M. 1975. Reading the Rocks: The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1842–1972. Toronto: Macmillan.
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