OTD: Famed Canadian geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell dies

On today’s date in 1957, Canadian geologist, explorer and historian Joseph Burr Tyrrell died in Toronto at the age of 98.

Born in present-day Ontario in 1858, Tyrrell experienced “a difficult and sickly childhood, contracting scarlet fever and being left with impaired eyesight and hearing,” according to a story published by The Independent in 2018, when Tyrrell was honoured with a Google “doodle.”

“His doctor advised that his health might be improved by working outside, and he committed to join an expedition through the Rockies as people were exploring the wilderness of Canada.”

Tyrrell worked for the Geological Survey of Canada from 1881-98, during which time he collected information on the natural history and mineral resources of many of the country’s remote regions.

“Tyrrell and his team travelled south of Red Deer by canoe along the Red Deer River. On June 12, 1884, Tyrrell discovered extensive coal deposits in what is now known as the Red Deer River valley. These deposits became Canada’s largest base for domestic coal mining and fuelled the economy until the discovery of oil and gas in Leduc, in 1947,” reads an article published by Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, which was founded in 1985 and named in his honour.

The reverse of the 2019 Royal Canadian Numismatic Association Convention medal was designed by James Williston, of the Calgary Numismatic Society, which hosted that year’s gathering. It depicts an Albertosaurus, which roamed present-day Alberta about 70 million years ago.

It was Aug. 12, 1884, when Tyrrell “stumbled upon a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull, the first of its species ever found, just a few kilometres from where the Museum now stands.”

“Although he wasn’t a paleontologist, he realized his discovery was significant. After carefully removing the fossil from its resting place, and taking great care to transport it safely to Calgary during what would be a week-long journey, it was shipped to Ottawa where it eventually ended up at the National Museum of Natural Sciences. From there, the skull made its way to Professor Edward Drinker Cope at the Philadelphia Academy of Science, where it was identified as Laelaps incrassatus.”

The skull was later re-examined and scientifically described, this time by American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, who renamed the dinosaur the Albertosaurus sarcophagus – literally “Flesh-eating lizard from Alberta” – in 1905, the same year Alberta become a province.

The Albertosaurus was also featured on this year’s Royal Canadian Numismatic Association Convention medal.

“My idea of peace and comfort was a tent by a clear brook anywhere north of 50 degrees of North Latitude,” Tyrrell wrote in one of his journals. “A ground-sheet and blankets enough, a side of salt pork and a bag of flour… For glory, I had the stars and the Northern Lights.”


Awarded biennially by the Royal Society of Canada, the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal was established in 1927 and was endowed by Tyrrell for the furtherance of the knowledge of the history of Canada.

The gold-plated silver medal is awarded for outstanding work in Canadian history.

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