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/ Physics at UofT / History of the Department / The Life of John Tuzo Wilson / The Geological Survey of Canada and the War Years

The Geological Survey of Canada and the War Years

The recent Ph.D. from Princeton joined the Geological Survey of Canada as an Assistant Geologist in 1936. At that time most of the effort of the Survey was in the conventional mapping of the country at scales of one inch to one mile, or one inch to four miles in remote areas. All members of the staff were expected to lead field parties in the summer, accompanied by students as assistants.  Tuzo's first assignment was to an area in southern Nova Scotia, where some map-areas begun years before during a period of gold exploration remained unfinished. In comparison to the thrust-faulted regime of the Beartooth Mountains, the area probably seemed rather devoid of interest. It is suggestive that Tuzo's only publications resulting directly from the work were the maps (3-10)*, whereas he published, through the Royal Society of Canada, a paper on the glacial geology of part of Nova Scotia (1). Indeed. he developed an interest in the overall geology of the Maritime Provinces which was to be vital to him years later when he studied the oceans. His association with the Society was to be a lifelong one.

In the following years Tuzo was assigned to areas in Quebec and, more significantly, the Northwest Territories. The areas in the Territories were then very remote, and it was a considerable responsibility for a party leader to take a group of students into them. Part of the region, in fact, had probably not been visited on the ground by non-native explorers since the time of Samuel Hearne (1771-2); in tracing Hearne's route Tuzo developed an interest in this explorer. On one occasion when his party was short of food, Tuzo killed a swimming moose by leaning out of his canoe and hitting it with an axe; he had previously read of Hearne doing precisely the same. Geological mapping was of a reconnaissance nature, at a scale of one inch to four miles, and the party made extensive use of air photos to locate themselves on the ground. This in itself was an innovation at the time, but Tuzo attempted to go further. He realized that features such as faults and dikes could be traced on the photographs, between the points where they were visited on the ground. This extrapolation of the 'ground truth' was firmly rejected by the Survey officers, and the published maps (14, 16) show only the slightest indication of faulting, in areas of the shield now known to be rich in structure, both straddling the Archean-Proterozoic boundary. To vindicate his belief in the usefulness of air photos, during the following winter in Ottawa Tuzo compiled the lineaments traceable over a large area of the TelTitoriesand published, on his own (15), the structural features deduced from them. This paper helped greatly to establish air photos as a geological tool, and it was important in leading the way toward the recognition of structural provinces within the Canadian Precambrian shield. On one of Tuzo's maps (figure 1) the pattern of lineaments defining the south and west boundaries of the Archean (i.e. older than 2500 million years) craton, now known as the Slave province, are clearly discernible, extending east from Great Slave Lake and north from Yellowknife respectively. It is interesting that his map shows structure along the Wop May River west of the western boundary of the Slave province, for this intensely deformed belt was to become known as the Wopmay orogen (Hoffman 1980) within the Bear province. Not all of the lineaments are faults (a fact Tuzo had recognized); some of the most pronounced ones are now known to be the traces of steeply dipping unconformities.

There is no doubt that Tuzo's experiences with the difficulty of publishing novel ideas through the Geological Survey of the 1930s made him realize that his true place was with a more research-oriented organization. But that is not to say that his years with the Survey were unhappy ones. In 1938 Tuzo married Isabel Dickson of Ottawa; together they had many friends in the city. Isabel was to become an indispensable support to Tuzo in all of his future activities. In any case, war was to intervene before he could make a move; it broke out while he was in the Territories in 1939. On his return from the field he joined the Royal Canadian Engineers, was commissioned a lieutenant, and eventually sent overseas with a tunneling company. He was always very modest about his wartime activities, stating that he would have been of little use in giving advice if it had not been for the assistance of members of the British Geological Survey. Some of the tunneling, and rather more drilling, were actually carried out in Britain, to place explosives that would slow an enemy advance from the coast.  But his scientific imagination came to the attention of senior officers, for he returned to Canada at the end of the war as Colonel, Director of Army Operational Research.

In the meantime, Isabel, who had accepted the fact that Survey geologists would be away throughout the summers, was not prepared to be separated for the duration of the war. She travelled to England, where she remained until she and Tuzo returned to Canada by sea in 1944.

The major activity of Tuzo's directorate during 1945—46 was the testing of army vehicles under severe Arctic and sub-Arctic conditions. A convoy consisting of ten specially designed vehicles for travel over snow was sent north from Churchill to the Arctic islands, west to Great Bear Lake and south to Edmonton. The civilian consultant on the design of the vehicles was Armand Bombardier, a Quebec mechanic, who was to go on to form the company that pioneered the snowmobile, and later, rapid transit equipment. The project itself was designated Exercise Musk Ox. Tuzo himself did not travel with the convoy, but he visited it by air at several locations along the route. The Exercise was a considerable success, all of the vehicles arriving intact in Edmonton, just one day behind schedule. Because the project was not classified, Tuzo was frequently called upon to speak about it; on occasion his topic was misinterpreted as 'Exercising the Musk Ox.'