History of Women Scientists in Canada

This project investigates the development of gender equality and women’s rights in Canada through a historical research study about science policy and the National Research Council (NRC). As Canada’s premier organization for scientific research, the NRC administers federal funding to support original research in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, among other fields. Over the past one hundred years, the NRC has played a central role in the development and implementation of federal science policy in Canada. The NRC’s institutional history is thus important for understanding the lives and experiences of women who challenged gender barriers while pursuing professional careers in science.

By focusing on the NRC’s history of funding for the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics) between 1920 and 2020, this study examines previously unused archival sources and oral interview materials to learn about the history of women scientists in Canada. Women have played an active and influential role in the progression of scientific research in Canada over the past one hundred years, but silences in the historical record often incorrectly overshadow or ignore women’s involvement in and contributions to science. It is important to foreground women’s voices and lived experiences, unearthing lessons from the past to contextualize and understand existing barriers for aspiring women scientists. A gender-based analysis of NRC history will yield information useful for understanding the deep roots of gender inequality among professional scientists in Canada, with the ultimate goal of generating knowledge useful for informing current policies to promote and advance women professionals in STEM-focused careers, disciplines, and administrative positions both in and beyond academia.

Medical Scientist Alan C. Burton and Military Experimentation in Cold War Canada

This project examines the military-sponsored research activities of medical scientist Dr. Alan C. Burton, who founded the Department of Biophysics at the University of Western Ontario in 1948. During a long and distinguished academic career, Burton worked on contract for the Defence Research Board, the research branch of the Canadian armed services and Canada’s first peacetime military science organization. He devised a special laboratory at Western and conducted a series of experiments to understand heat loss in the human body. The Canadian military was active in northern Canada during the 1950s and 1960s, and Burton’s research in environmental physiology was designed to provide knowledge useful for training soldiers to withstand the cold and harsh climatic conditions of sub-Arctic and Arctic Canada during this significant period in world affairs.

Burton’s work for the Defence Research Board is important because it demonstrates the entangled histories of military funding and medical science in Cold War Canada. His experimental work conformed to a military agenda that was unrelated to the civilian applications of his research, but the decision to conduct research for the Canadian armed services was his alone. He accepted military research funding to pursue his scientific curiosities and further his professional career. Did Cold War security anxieties place pressure on Burton, or was research funding the deciding factor? Why did he contribute to the Defence Research Board for eighteen years, and how did his experimental work affect the research subjects involved in his cold-room studies? This project uses recently declassified archival materials to study Burton’s research and provide answers to the lingering questions about his career.