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"Them Dry Bones..."

For the week of Monday August 20, 2007

On August 26, 1957, Joseph Burr Tyrrell died only a few months before his 99th birthday. During his lifetime, Tyrrell undertook many diverse projects and made significant contributions to geography and history in Canada.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell
Joseph Burr Tyrrell
© Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
Born in Weston, Upper Canada, Tyrrell originally intended to be a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Toronto, but after practicing law for one year, Tyrrell’s doctor advised him to work outdoors to improve the state of his health. So, in 1882, Tyrrell joined the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), a world-famous institution created to assess Canada’s mineral resources and to explore uncharted lands. He began as a clerk, examining fossils and rocks, but was soon participating in exploratory surveys in the west.

In 1884, Tyrrell led his own expedition north of Calgary to study the geology and search for coal resources. It was there that Tyrrell came face-to-face with a dinosaur skull while climbing up a creek’s bank. This was the first discovery of carnivorous dinosaur bones in Canada. The area was rich in dinosaur bones and fossils and, in 1985, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, named in honour of Tyrrell’s discovery, opened in Drumheller, Alberta.

Tyrrell on Dubawnt Lake
Tyrrell on Dubawnt Lake
© Natural Resources Canada, Geological Survey of Canada
On another expedition, Tyrrell’s First Nations' guides informed him of a large river that flowed from the Barren Lands to Hudson Bay. Tyrrell later set out to chart this unknown route through the north. The journey took eight months, covered 5,150 kilometres, and was filled with considerable hardship. In an account of his trip published in the Geographical Journal, Tyrrell recalls that even in the midday sun, the temperature was well below freezing. His party was without food or fuel, and their clothes were worn to rags. Nevertheless, everyone returned safely and Tyrrell added the Dubawnt and Thelon rivers to the map of Canada as well as provided the first photographs and descriptions of the Caribou Inuit.

After leaving the GSC, Tyrrell, with his vast knowledge of geology, pursued mining. He was a private mining consultant in Dawson at the height of the Klondike gold rush and later became the general manager and president of the Kirkland Lake Gold Mining Company.

Tyrrell filled in blank spots on Canada’s map and expanded knowledge of geology and other scientific disciplines. He also contributed to Canadian history by editing and publishing the journals of 18th- and 19th-century explorers and fur traders Samuel Hearne and David Thompson. Joseph Burr Tyrrell was designated a National Historic Person in 1970.

For more information on Tyrrell’s travels, visit the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s Barren Lands Digital Collection.

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