Science | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Science is the rational study of nature, rose to prominence in European civilization at almost the same time as the first European exploration of what is now Canada and was, from the beginning, an element in those explorations.

From the time of John Cabot, scientific navigation and geography were essential to enable explorers to reach and penetrate Canada. During the 19th century and, more particularly, the 20th century, science, increasingly closely linked with technology, assumed a central place in Canadian life and culture, providing the basis of national wealth and well-being.

The practical uses of science have always been foremost in Canada. From the earliest times, scientific observers noted and catalogued the natural resources of the country. The Jesuit missionaries, the first organized group with both a scientific education and an interest in nature, sent back to Europe reports of the new land (see Jesuit Relations). From the mid-17th century, they taught general science in Québec and trained navigators.

During the following century, the Jesuits were joined by civil and military authorities with a taste for science. Physicians J.F. Gaultier and Michel Sarrazin, the marquis de la Galissonière and engineer Michel Chartier de Lotbinière made forays into botany and geology, but their contributions were transient; after 1759, only the Jesuit-inspired education survived. A procession of foreign visitors, such as Pehr Kalm, André Michaux, Capt John Palliser and J.J. Bigsby, noted Canada's geology, botany and zoology well into the 19th century. The native Canadian development of science did not begin until the early 19th century, with the coming of colleges, government agencies and locally sponsored expeditions.

Important contributors such as Adam Henry Bayfield, Lt Frederick Baddeley, Capt Richard Bonnycastle, Lt Edward Ashe and Capt John Lefroy were British military men with an appetite for science. As the British military presence in Canada diminished during the second half of the century, Canadian-born and educated men, both professional and amateur, replaced them and gave Canadian science its own flavour. The structure of modern Canadian science began to form during the last quarter of the century. It was slower to develop than its American counterpart and while similar in many ways, is distinguishable from it. One major difference, which retains much of its original impact, is the strong role of government in Canadian science.

Government Involvement

Because of Canada's small population, few universities and industries, government has long been an important supporter of science. The province of Canada took the lead in 1842 by creating the Geological Survey of Canada under Montréal-born William (later Sir William) Logan. Modelled on the British survey and American state surveys, it was intended to be a short-lived project aimed at the discovery of economic minerals, but so vast was Canada and so adroit were Logan, his colleagues and successors that the survey has survived to the present as the second-oldest national survey in the world, and one of the most distinguished.

Although the survey was officially limited to Upper and Lower Canada, Logan's assistant, Alexander Murray, who became provincial geologist in Newfoundland, and Logan's correspondents in the Maritimes, such as Charles Hartt and G.F. Matthew of Saint John, and James Robb and Loring Bailey of Fredericton, ensured, before Confederation, the foundations of a systematic study of Canadian geology. After 1867, the survey was faced with the exploration of virtually all the territories now comprising Canada. A succession of visionary directors, such as A.R.C. Selwyn, George M. Dawson, Albert P. Low and Reginald Brock nurtured the survey into a large and multifaceted organization. The collections of the survey, first housed in Logan's home, evolved into the National Museum (now National Museum of Natural Sciences), by the 1890s. The more economic aspects of geology called forth the creation of different organizations such as the federal Department of Mines (1907). Some provinces had moved earlier, eg, NS had established a Commissioner of Mines before Confederation, and Ontario set up a Bureau of Mines in 1891. After the turn of the century, most provinces maintained government bureaus devoted to mining.

The imperial government initiated little in science beyond creating the Toronto Magnetic Observatory in 1840 as a link in an international chain of institutions for the study of geomagnetism. On the British withdrawal of support in 1853, the provincial government assumed its operation. The small astronomical observatory in Québec, established in 1850 and built in 1854 to provide time for shipping, and small observatories in Saint John, Montréal and Kingston were linked together with Toronto by the federal Dept of Marine and Fisheries in the 1870s as the Canadian Meteorological Service, which survives as the Atmospheric Environment Service (see Climatology). The Dept of the Interior pursued practical astronomy in the 1880s as part of the transcontinental railway surveys. The need for a permanent observatory for geographic and timekeeping purposes led to the establishment of Ottawa's Dominion Observatory, which opened in 1905. Not only was the observatory an important centre for practical astronomy but it was also the birthplace of Canadian astrophysics, in the hands of J.S. Plaskett and his colleagues. As a result of Plaskett's efforts, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, which briefly possessed the world's largest telescope, commenced work in 1918. It has remained one of the most important international astrophysical centres.

Federal government scientific programs nearly always grew from practical and economic considerations. Because agriculture was so central to the 19th-century economy, the Central Experimental Farm was founded in Ottawa in 1886 under the direction of William Saunders (see Research Stations). The staff, including the Dominion cerealist, entomologist, chemist and others, were responsible for new varieties of crops and for pest control. The Experimental Farm system rapidly opened branches across the country. The Dept of Agriculture's research staff has, during the present century, carried on the traditions of research of the pioneers such as John Macoun, William and Charles Saunders, C.J.S. Bethune, Frank Shutt and others.

Zoological research was initiated by the government in the mid-19th century with Pierre Fortin's fisheries studies in the Gulf of St Lawrence; by 1899, the Marine Biological Station at St Andrew's, NB, directed by E.E. Prince, was in operation, followed by a number of other marine stations (see Oceanography). The Biological Board of Canada, first appointed in 1912, oversaw this research; by 1937 it had become the Fisheries Research Board. The Canadian Commission of Conservation, established in 1909 and dismantled in 1921, took a wider view of Canada's natural heritage. Contemporary government agencies for the natural sciences, mostly grouped within the departments of Environment and Agriculture, consume the largest portion of the federal science budget.

The most important government initiative in science was the appointment, in 1916, of the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a group similar to the British wartime scientific advisory council. It soon became the National Research Council. Obtaining its own laboratories for industrial research in 1932, the NRC, under the leadership of such men as H.M. Tory, C.J. Mackenzie and E.W.R. Steacie expanded to become one of the most diversified and successful governmental research organizations in the world. Before WWII, its endeavours were largely in aid of industrial research and development, but, with a tenfold increase in staff during and after the war, its work branched into many new fields including radar, nuclear energy, aeronautics and radio astronomy (see Defence Research). Its pure science component continues to be strong, complementing applied research in transportation, northern environments, energy, building technology, materials science and chemistry.

Along with its laboratory work, the NRC has, since its early days, been a primary contributor to university science with its grants, scholarships and fellowships. From a modest $13 000 in 1918, its subventions grew to nearly $70 million annually by the early 1970s. More recently, research and educational grants for the sciences have been disbursed by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and by the Medical Research Council.

Other government agencies, such as the Defence Research Board, the departments of National Defence, Communications, Transport and others, have, since 1945, become important in Canadian science. One branch of the NRC wartime operation, the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories grew into the crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (1952) which, with Ontario Hydro, a world leader in electrical technology since early in the century, developed the CANDU reactor. The reactor employs Canada's natural uranium and Canadian-manufactured heavy water. Another crown corporation, the Polymer Corp, has been an important leader in the petrochemical industry. The provinces have also participated in science: beginning with the precursor to the Alberta Research Council in 1919 and the Ontario Research Foundation in 1928, nearly all the provinces have created more modest versions of the NRC (see Research, Provincial Organizations).


Early education in Canada was in private or church hands and, although elementary mathematics appeared in all curricula, elementary science was rare. From the 1840s, provincially supported schools included only a smattering of science. During the latter part of the 19th century, the prevailing ideology of science education held that only natural history was suitable for children, they being unable to grasp the complexities of physical science. This view, then also current in Britain and the US, has survived almost to the present; biological studies, complemented by environmental studies, remain the core of elementary science. Ontario secondary schools led the way in science courses as a preparation for university matriculation examinations.

The church-run classical colleges of Québec, following the original French pattern, taught science to few students and only in the last 2 years of study. By the mid-19th century, the francophone student was as knowledgeable in science as an anglophone liberal arts student in a 3- or 4-year college program. The curriculum froze, however, and the gap between anglophone and francophone science education continued to grow. Dissatisfaction in the state-supported universities and the conservatism of the church-run colleges combined to produce a widespread debate in the late 1920s and early 1930s which was led, on the scientific side, by U de M biologist Frère Marie-Victorin and U Laval chemist Adrien Pouliot. Progress was slow and science began to take its proper place in the secondary curriculum in Québec only in the 1960s.

Science teaching in Canadian universities was a mixture of various elements, with the Scottish and American predominating. From the founding until after the turn of the 20th century, most of the small liberal arts colleges offered general science as part of a general education. For most of the century, 2 reasons for teaching science were commonly given: science aided the student in learning to think logically, and it exhibited to the student the wonders of God's creation. Little thought was given to preparing future scientists, and those Canadians who became professionals had either to resort to schools overseas (usually German or American) or virtually to train themselves with the help of sympathetic professors. The state of science was such, however, that practical work in geology, botany or zoology required far less formal training than it would a century later. Typically, 2 professors, one for natural history and geology, the other for physics, chemistry and perhaps astronomy, covered the entire range of science. Laboratory practice was unknown until the present century.

The few 19th-century universities to develop curricula beyond the introductory level were those possessing engineering or medical faculties. McGill, Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Dalhousie, New Brunswick and Queen's, were the sources of science graduates and the employers of the best-known academic scientists. McGill, under the inspired leadership of paleontologist Sir William Dawson, and Toronto, with the physicist James Loudon as president, moved away from the liberal arts tradition to more professionally oriented education during the last 2 decades of the 19th century.

This modernization included the creation of specialized degrees (the Bachelor of Science, BSc), research laboratories for chemistry, physics, biology and engineering, larger staffs and the adoption of the earned doctorate (PhD). The science PhD, an earlier German innovation, required independent research on the part of the student rather than preparation for examinations. American schools adopted doctoral programs from 1876, but Toronto did not award its first, to J.C. McLennan, until 1900. McGill followed soon after and was quickly emulated by others, such as Queen's, where engineering had developed in the 1890s. This modernization was costly and was borne, in most cases, by provincial authorities eager for economic benefits of scientific training. McGill, which was the object of the private philanthropy of Peter Redpath and Sir William C. MacDonald, was able to create excellent laboratory facilities and, consequently, could attract a younger generation of scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy and Otto Hann, who would become international stars after their Canadian apprenticeships.

Despite the lack of funds, books, laboratories and research students, and the lack of understanding on the part of college councils and provincial legislatures, several college teachers distinguished themselves in their researches. Among them were the natural historian James Robb, biologist and geologist L.W. Bailey and astronomer W.B. Jack in UNB; geologist William Dawson, biologist J.F. Whiteaves and geologist Frank Adams at McGill; mathematician Nathan Dupuis and botanist George Lawson at Queen's (later at Dalhousie); chemist Henry Croft, at U of T. They were largely self-made scientists and were superseded by a better-educated generation which created the science education format that, with changes, still exists.

In Canada's colleges and universities, science evolved slowly from the liberal arts tradition to the research-oriented system. A strong influence in the West was H.M. Tory, a McGill mathematician and physicist and later president of the NRC, who was not only the outstanding institution builder of the interwar years but also one convinced of the importance of science in the university curriculum. The western schools were thus able to attract first-rate staffs, including physicist Gordon Shrum (a co-worker of Sir John McLennan's at Toronto) at UBC, chemist John Spinks and astrophysicist Gerhard Herzberg at Saskatchewan, and physicist R.W. Boyle at Alberta.

The end of WWII signalled a massive influx of students, the availability of many young scientists who had been involved in the war effort and greater financial resources from governments. These developments led to a new phase in university science, one devoted to larger faculties, new specialties and facilities and, from the 1960s, a stronger emphasis on the importance of science for society. Older schools became centres of excellence: Western Ontario became noted for biomedical research, spectroscopy and astronomy, McMaster for nuclear science and engineering, Manitoba for agricultural science and biology. At the same time, the tremendous increase in students and interest in higher education during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in establishment of new universities, distinguished from the outset by scientific specialization, including York in biology and space science, Waterloo in computer science and engineering, and Victoria in physics.

The relative lack of interest in science as a profession in French Canada meant that the move to modern laboratory-oriented science was slower in Québec. Laval created a forestry school in 1910, followed a decade later with its École supérieure de chimie (1920); at the same time, U de M became independent of Laval and inaugurated its faculty of sciences. The École polytechnique de Montréal, founded on a small scale by U.E. Archambault in 1873, became linked to the new university as its faculty of engineering. Real expansion in the sciences, in terms of facilities, faculty and student numbers, did not occur until the 1960s. Even by the late 1960s, McGill was producing nearly twice as many PhDs and first degrees in science as Laval and Montréal together.

Scientific Organizations

The pattern of growth of Canada's scientific organizations, institutions and publications is unique, because of the nature of Canadian government, education, population mixture and distribution and economic patterns. Professional societies were late in emerging; their predecessors were strongly oriented towards amateurs and those for whom science was a cultural outlet or entertainment. The first of these societies, the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec (1824), enrolled amateurs and a small band of military men of the Québec garrison with a penchant for geology or exploration. The Natural History Society of Montreal (1827) was dominated by amateurs until after mid-century when William Dawson, together with his scientific colleagues at McGill, raised the level of professionalism. The Geological Survey's paleontologist, Elkanah Billings, founded in 1856 Canada's first scientific journal, the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, which became the official organ of the society. It remained the most important outlet for papers on geology, botany and zoology until the turn of the century. No francophone scientific society of any size emerged before the 20th century, although Abbé Léon Provancher published the Naturaliste canadien from 1868.

In the Maritimes, Saint John geologists Charles Hartt and G.F. Matthew created the Natural History Society of New Brunswick (est 1863) and published its Transactions, while a group centered at Dalhousie University directed the Nova Scotian Institute of Science (est 1862) and produced its Transactions. In Ontario, the Canadian Institute was formed by engineers and university scientists in 1849, launching the Canadian Journal in 1852, the primary outlet for Toronto science until the end of the century. Smaller organizations, some devoted to natural history, others to more general scientific and cultural ends, appeared in Fredericton; Kingston, Ottawa, Belleville, Hamilton and London, Ont; and Winnipeg.

By the time of Confederation, the first societies devoted to one science appeared: the Toronto Astronomical Club (1868), which evolved into the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and the Entomological Society of Ontario. None of these societies were for professionals, still too few in number, and many faded and disappeared in the early years of the 20th century. The marquess of Lorne was instrumental in founding the first organization for distinguished scientists, the Royal Society of Canada, in 1882.

The Royal Society, with so few specialists in any one field, failed to provide the institutional basis for professional scientists. It has never found a clearly defined role and its journal, the Proceedings and Transactions, already marginal in the 19th century, ceased to be of much value for the scientific community in the 20th. The 20th century brought the rise of professional, disciplinary organizations and the demise of most of the amateur and general societies. The largest single discipline, chemistry, has been served by a series of organizations dating from the mid-19th century; in 1920, the nationwide Canadian Institute of Chemistry was formed, which evolved into the Chemical Institute of Canada in 1945, launching Chemistry in Canada 4 years later.

With more than 10 000 members, the CIC, with its subdisciplinary and regional branches, represents the scientific area most closely allied with the Canadian economy. Other large disciplines followed: the Geological Association of Canada, 1947; Canadian Association of Physicists, 1946, sponsor of the journal Physics in Canada from 1949; and several smaller groups in the life sciences which formed the Canadian Federation of Biological Societies in 1957. A number of newer specialties have become foci of societies and journals, mostly dating from the late 1950s to the present. The first truly international journal in Canada, the Canadian Journal of Research, established by the NRC in 1929, was successively split into NRC-published specialist journals, as the quantity of papers in new disciplines grew.

The style and aims of scientific organizations differed in French Canada during the 20th century. Attempts to form scientific societies for Francophones late in the 19th century had mostly failed but, by the 1920s and 1930s, several professional groups began to emerge, particularly the Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (ACFAS), which affiliated local and specialist societies. ACFAS, like its British, French and American counterparts, successfully grouped scientists from all disciplines and took special pains to popularize science in Québec. No anglophone organization has ever seriously attempted either function; consequently, the association's popular journal, Québec Science, has no English-language equivalent. The defunct Science Forum appealed more narrowly to those with science policy interests. The need for a voice in government circles led to the formation by Canadian scientific and engineering societies of SCITEC (Association of Scientific, Engineering and Technical Community of Canada) in 1970 but, as an organization of organizations rather than of individuals, it has primarily restricted its activities to lobbying.

Before the 1960s, popular interest in science had few outlets, besides scientific collections in federal or provincial museums. The great stimulus of space exploration has, as in the US, added new dimensions to popular awareness of science. Most major cities possess planetariums or science-oriented museums such as Ottawa's National Museum of Science and Technology, Toronto's Ontario Science Centre and Winnipeg's Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, attracting millions of visitors annually (see Science Centres). The Canadian media have been more conservative in their attempts to popularize science (see Science and Society). Amateur societies and clubs for geology and natural history exist across the country, while astronomy, perhaps the most popular amateur science, is represented by the 3000-strong Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

The outstanding feature of 20th-century Canadian science is specialization. In the last century, Canadian contributions to areas other than the earth sciences were few, but a sign of maturity of science is its broadening into new areas, followed by a steady stream of results. The Canadian population has been small in relation to that of world scientific leaders and its scientific manpower numbers only a few thousand; therefore, excellence is possible only in a few areas.

The earth sciences have continued to grow in strength, not only in practical work but also in the theoretical, as J.T. Wilson's contributions to plate tectonics show. The demands for mining and energy sustain the importance of applied research. Chemistry, too, despite fundamental research in the universities and the NRC, has retained its strong practical orientation because of our essentially resource-based economy. The forestry research centres at Laval and Toronto, and the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada at McGill are internationally known; research in metallurgy by International Nickel (INCO Ltd), Falconbridge, Dominion Foundries and Steel, Ltd (DOFASCO ) and STELCO is necessary to maintain a competitive place in the metals markets; pharmaceutical chemistry in Montréal and biomedical and genetic research in centres in Toronto, Montréal, London and Saskatoon have placed Canada in the vanguard of life science research.

Agricultural research has a long and illustrious history, dating from the production of Marquis wheat by Saunders. Researches on new grains such as triticale, on new uses for older plants such as rapeseed (canola) and on pest control methods and widespread work on plant breeding and animal breeding in government laboratories, research councils and universities, especially Saskatchewan, Guelph and Manitoba, have created a pool of expertise and products employed throughout the world.

As a result of the small communities of researchers and the lack of financial resources, the glamour areas of contemporary science (such as astrophysics, radio astronomy, nuclear particle research, solid state physics, recombinant DNA research and theoretical work in general) are cultivated on a much more modest scale in Canada than in the US or Britain. Canadian scientists in these specialties have built up relationships with colleagues in other English- and French-speaking nations, which have allowed them access to facilities impossible to obtain at home. These links ensure that Canadian scientists will not be restricted to practical, economically oriented research but, in small numbers, can share in the excitement at the cutting edge of modern research.

The concepts and methods of science are universal, but its social relations, politics and structure are unique to each nation. In a country as large as Canada, these aspects of science also have a regional flavour. Canadian science has strong similarities to American science but has its special properties: the strong and central role of the NRC in its laboratories and funding; the federal-provincial division of science funding and policy making; and the specialization of science strengths in areas tied closely to the economy. The "big science" element in American science, ie, large teams, huge financial resources and extensive facilities, are lacking in Canada, where no substantial industrial research effort is undertaken and where a small defence establishment has not required large-scale projects of science-based technology. Nonetheless, Canadian science has made significant contributions to knowledge and, during the 20th century, has become an integral part of the international scientific effort.

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