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Elkanah Billings and His Passion For Prehistory

For the week of Monday April 30, 2007

On May 5, 1820, Elkanah Billings became the fourth of seven children born to Braddish and Lamira. The Billings family established their homestead in present-day Ottawa, along the Ottawa River. Billings House, completed in 1829, served as the family’s home into the 1960s. It was here that Elkanah spent his earliest days.

Billings House
© Parks Canada / Mallory Schwartz / 2006
It was also in Ottawa that Elkanah Billings established his career. Billings began as a lawyer, but soon became interested in the study of fossils, or paleontology. This passion for prehistoric life fueled his ambition to become a professional paleontologist. His efforts were aided by his position as editor of the Bytown Citizen, later the Ottawa Citizen, as his contributions to the newspaper helped establish his reputation as a knowledgeable source on the subject. His reputation was furthered by his extra curricular work. His 1854 report on Trenton fossils was his first scientific report. The following year, another essay won him a $100 first place prize at the Universal Exposition in Paris. By 1856, his natural history hobby became his career when he founded the monthly periodical, The Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, to which he frequently contributed and acted as editor.

By then, Billings had captured the attention of Sir William Logan. Logan was an acclaimed expert of Canadian geology whose exceptional work led him to become the first Canadian-born inductee to the Royal Society of London in 1851. He was also the first director of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and was responsible for hiring Billings in 1856 to be the survey paleontologist. Billings, who was to study fossils uncovered by the GSC, identified more than 500 new species of fossils by 1863.

Inside Billings House
Inside Billings House
© Parks Canada / Mallory Schwartz / 2006
During his career, Billings wrote some 200 scientific papers, including Figures and Descriptions of Canadian Organic Remains (1858-59), he contributed to Logan’s 1863 text, Geology of Canada, and he helped Logan develop the “great overlap” theorem about thrust faulting.

Billings died at age 56 in Montréal. To honour his achievements as a father of Canadian paleontology, the Paleontology Division of the Geological Association of Canada created the Billings Medal. The childhood home of this trailblazing Canadian paleontologist, Billings House National Historic Site, exists today as a museum.

For his pioneering work in the geological sciences, Sir William Edmond Logan became a National Historic Person in 1967. To learn more about Logan, please visit "Married to the Rocks" in the This Week in History Archives.

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