Joseph Burr Tyrrell

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Joseph Burr Tyrrell

Canadian geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell (1858-1957) inadvertently made one of the most important discoveries of dinosaur bones in North America in 1884. The skull and skeleton he dug up by accident in a remote part of Alberta proved to be the Albertosaurus sarcophagus, a slightly smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex and the first of its genus found anywhere in the world. Tyrrell's findings aroused international interest and brought hordes of paleontologists to dig in this unpopulated part of western Canada. Tyrrell was one of Canada's most famed geologists and explorers and mapped out vast stretches of its northern lands.

Avoided Career in Law

Tyrrell was born on November 1, 1858, in Weston, Ontario, a town his father had founded. It later became part of metropolitan Toronto. His father's family was an esteemed Irish clan that hailed from Castle Grange in County Kildare. The elder Tyrrell emigrated to Canada and made a fortune as a stonemason in Ontario before marrying Elizabeth Burr, whose family roots in the New World dated back to 1682. In Weston, the Tyrrell family lived in an immense 24-room stone house. As a child, Tyrrell suffered a bout with scarlet fever that left him partially deaf; his vision was impaired as well, but he wore glasses to correct it. He studied at Upper Canada College as a teen and went on to an arts course at the University of Toronto.

The senior Tyrrell steered his son into a career in law, but Tyrrell was fascinated by the natural world and studied biology, botany, and other branches of science in his spare time. He even conducted research on his own with a microscope and published a paper in the Ottawa Field Naturalist on mites that cause feline ailments. Professors introduced him to associates of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), the government agency formed in the 1840s with a mandate to search out coal fields and other potential sources of revenue for what was then the province of Quebec and Ontario. The agency and its staff expanded considerably over the next few decades as Canada became a full-fledged confederacy.

After Tyrrell finished at the University of Toronto in 1880, he began studying for the bar and working at a local firm, as was the custom in the era before law schools became commonplace, but he was still weak from a bout with pneumonia a few years earlier. His physician suggested that outdoor work would restore him to health, so Tyrrell found a temporary post as an assistant at the GSC, which was moving its offices from Montreal to Ottawa and needed additional staff. His first task was to unpack and sort through hundreds of specimens of Canadian rocks.

Ventured into Rough Terrain

One of the GSC's leading names was George Mercer Dawson, a member of the International Boundary Commission. While surveying lands along the 49th Parallel, Dawson discovered the first dinosaur bones in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1874. Such fossil finds were a relatively recent development. In 1770 in Holland, the first ancient skeleton of what was thought to be an immense marine lizard was unearthed. In 1800, the first ancient specimen uncovered by Europeans in North America was a set of fossilized dinosaur tracks in Connecticut.

Dawson, impressed by Tyrrell's dedication to his job, invited him to accompany a GSC survey that was planned to help the Canadian Pacific railroad determine its westward route through the foothills of the Rockies in 1883. Tyrrell eagerly accepted. After having spent his life in Toronto and Ottawa, he found the Canadian West a lawless but exciting place, where horses were stolen if camps were not guarded well enough. The trip was an arduous one, both for the surveying work itself—which involved counting the number of steps taken and taking compass measurements—but also for the terrain. "Black flies without number from six a.m. till noon," Tyrrell wrote in his journal, according to Alex Inglis's biography, Northern Vagabond: The Life and Career of J. B. Tyrell, the Man Who Conquered the Canadian North. "At eight o'clock the bull-dog flies came to their assistance and made the horses' lives a burden to them until evening. There was a short respite, then the mosquitoes arrived to prevent any rest for the night."

Discovered Immense Dinosaur Fossil

In 1884, at the age of 26, Tyrrell was given his own field party to lead. He and his assistants traveled by canoe to an area north of the Bow River in southwestern Alberta. On a mission to search for coal deposits in the Red Deer River valley, on June 9 Tyrrell and his party instead found a giant skull in the area. Digging further, he unearthed a large cache of bones and arranged to have them taken to Fort Calgary. The load was so heavy that it broke the axle of the wagon. From there they were shipped to Philadelphia for verification, and Professor E.D. Cope termed the skeleton Laelaps incrassatus and dated it as 70 million years old. It was later reclassified as an Albertosaurus sarcophagus by American Museum of Natural History scholar Henry Fairfield Osborne in 1905. It was the first of its genus ever discovered and confirmed as a smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

News of the find sparked what became known as the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush in the Red Deer River valley, and many more important discoveries were made. Yet Tyrrell was not a paleontologist and was far more interested in the bituminous coal deposits that were found in the area. The area where he found Albertosaurus sarcophagus soon became the large mining center of Drumheller, which thrived well into the 20th Century.

Canada's Forbidding "Barren Lands"

Tyrrell lived in an Ottawa boarding house during the winter months when not traveling on behalf of the GSC. Despite the hardships of his job, he enjoyed the work very much. "My idea of peace and comfort was a tent by a clear brook anywhere north of 50 degrees of North Latitude," he wrote in his log, "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." His nomadic lifestyle presented certain challenges for his bride, Mary Edith Carey, the daughter of an Ottawa Baptist minister, whom he wed in 1894. The couple were often separated for long periods of time. At other times, he brought along his brothers Grattan or James to serve as his assistants.

Tyrrell's next major assignment was a lengthy GSC expedition of what was known as the Barren Lands, the area west of the Hudson Bay and north of Winnipeg. His trip beginning in 1893 would secure his place in Canadian history, for the area had only recently come under Canadian sovereignty. It was formerly held by the Hudson's Bay Company, a fur-trading enterprise, and there were very few settlers there. To prepare for his trip, Tyrrell read the journals of David Thompson, the Hudson's Bay surveyor who measured much of the Canadian wilderness in the 1780s and 1790s.

Sometimes Presumed Missing

Over the course of the next four years Tyrrell and his party of seven made lengthy trips that brought back a wealth of information about the region. It was an arduous journey, marked by bitterly cold temperatures and supported by a bare minimum of food supplies. They traveled by canoe, dog sled, and snowshoe, meeting many communities of Athapascan Indians and Inuit along the way. At times they camped with the indigenous people and shared native delicacies such as fried moose. Tyrrell thought it interesting that when he offered an Athapascan a job as a guide, it was the man's wife who decided if he should take it. Nearly half of the thousands of square miles Tyrrell and his party covered had been utterly unknown territory and had not even been surveyed by the Hudson's Bay Company.

At times, Tyrrell's party was delayed by weather or other mishaps, and rumors spread that they had perished. Based on his explorations, Tyrrell became intrigued by glaciation, a relatively new field of study at the time. In 1897, he delivered a paper before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he agreed with Swiss-American geologist Louis Agassiz, whose 1840 tude sur les glaciers posited that the continents were formed by movements of glaciers during the various ice ages. Supporting Agassiz's theory, Tyrrell wrote that he had found scratches in the Manitoba granite that showed glacier movement; furthermore, he noted, it was not a single movement but rather a series. He argued that the glaciers had moved south and west to the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Tyrrell also asserted that underneath the Barren Lands were large swaths of Precambrian rock, which later proved true when the entire Canadian Shield was mapped.

Established Lucrative Business

Tyrrell had gone to the Klondike area, a region of the Yukon Territory just east of Alaska, in 1898 to take part in its famous "Gold Rush" that year. Though he did not become rich, he saw how easy it was for fortunes to grow overnight, and he vowed to change careers. In January 1896, Tyrrell and his wife had become parents, and the expanded household strained their finances. Over the years, he had often struggled to make ends meet, for he failed to earn what he thought was an appropriate salary at the GSC despite his renown. The ostensible reason was that he lacked the academic credentials, but there was some backbiting within the agency and others seemed resentful of his fame.

Realizing that one of the little nuggets he saw panned by others was equal to his month's salary, Tyrrell resigned from the GSC effective January 1, 1899, and went back to the Yukon later that month. In Dawson City he opened a mining consulting business, though he had little actual experience save for his vast knowledge of the area's geography. The business proved quite successful in investigating possible claims. He moved his firm to Toronto in 1907 to be closer to his family and take advantage of the cobalt and silver rush taking place in northern Ontario. In 1924, he made a wise investment in the Kirkland Lake gold mine in eastern Ontario, and it made him a millionaire.

In the later years of his life, Tyrrell edited the journals of Thompson for publication by the Champlain Society. He settled on a farm and orchard outside of Toronto, which was later subsumed by the city zoo. He died on August 26, 1957, in Toronto, Ontario, at the age of 98. The Drumheller, Alberta, museum near where he made his Albertosaurus sarcophagus discovery housed the skeleton and was named the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology.


Inglis, Alex, Northern Vagabond: The Life and Career of J. B. Tyrell, the Man Who Conquered the Canadian North, McClelland & Stewart, 1978. □

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(b. Weston, Ontario, Canada, 1 November 1858; d. Toronto, Canada, 26 August 1957)

geology, exploration, mining.

Tyrrell was the son of William Tyrrell, a building contractor (later reeve of York Township and of Weston) and Elizabeth Burr, the daughter of Rowland Burr, a mill architect. He was educated at the Old Grammar School, Weston, and at Upper Canada College, Toronto; it is significant that he became an expert shot with the pistol at an early age.

At the University of Toronto he had a distinguished undergraduate career, gaining first-class honors in chemistry, biology, mineralogy, and geology, and winning the only natural sciences scholarship awarded in his year. After graduation he began studies leading to a career in the legal profession, but a threat of tuberculosis caused him to change to the outdoor life of a geologist.

His first appointment was with the Geological Survey of Canada, already a well-established organization, directed by A. C. Selwyn. Tyrrell was assigned as field assistant to the assistant director, Dr. George Dawson, who had already made a considerable reputation for his exploration and geological reconnaissance work in the more remote parts of Canada. Together they made traverses through the Crows Nest, Kootenay, and Kicking Horse passes in the Rocky Mountains. Tyrrell also made geological surveys of the Cretaceous coal measures of the foothills between Calgary and Edmonton, discovering in the course of this work the first remains of giant carnivorous dinosaurs found in Canada. In old age he was to describe this as“one of the most pleasurable thrills”of his life.

In the 1890’s Tyrrell’s attention turned to the Pre-Cambrian shield area of northern and arctic Canada, and he made a series of arduous journeys there by wagon and canoe. These trips were important for the geological surveys achieved, for apart from the sparse indigenous population of Indians and Eskimos, the only previous visitors had been white trappers. The territory included what are now parts of northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The two most noteworthy expeditions (1893 and 1894) were his crossings of the Barren Lands, the treeless arctic wastes lying to the west of Hudson Bay. In each case the starting point was the Lake Athabasca Post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The goal was the company station at Fort Churchill. The first expedition reached Hudson Bay at Chesterfield Inlet at latitude 63° 58’. The journey had proved dangerous. Had they not come upon herds of caribou, they would have starved. Winter overtook them early during the 500-mile journey along Hudson Bay to Fort Churchill. Tyrrell noted a great river discharging into Hudson Bay and resolved to return to investigate it the folowing year. He did so and named the river after R. Munro Ferguson, a member of the group. Maps were prepared by Tyrrell during these expeditions, and the scientific results were embodied in very full reports, parts of which remain the only authoritative accounts of this area.

Tyrrell was also a keen naturalist and his writings include a catalogue of the mammals of Canada, descriptions of the winter home of the caribou, and an account of the distribution of conifers. Scientifically, however, he is remembered for his contributions to glacial geology at this stage, notably the recognition that three major Pleistocene ice sheets–which he called the Labradorean, the Patrician, and the Keewatin–had covered northern and eastern Canada.

Still more significant were his later contributions to economic geology. He had already noted seepages of oil in the foothills zone north of Edmonton before 1893 and had urged investigation by drilling. This petroleum field was not adequately explored until the 1950’s, however. He had also discovered amber deposits at Cedar Lake.

In 1898, after writing up his northern expeditions, he was assigned to the Yukon, where the Klondike gold rush, the most spectacular in Canadian history, was at its height. Tyrrell reported on the geological situation for the government, but upon his return to Ottawa at the end of the year he had come to the conclusion that he wished to take a more active part in the mining industry. Accordingly he left the Geological Survey to return in a private capacity to the Yukon. He became a geological and mining consultant and quickly won the confidence of the gold miners. He then spent seven years in the Yukon.

In 1894 Tyrrell married Mary Edith Carey, daughter of the Reverend Dr. G. M. W. Carey, of New Brunswick. After he became established in Dawson City his wife and small daughter Mary joined him.

Tyrrell’s career in the Yukon spanned the changeover from streaming to large-scale hydraulic mining, and he learned and contributed much to the geology of alluvial gold. In 1895 he returned to the east, however, and after a short period as mining adviser to Sir William Mackenzie, the railroad developer, he set up as a consultant in Toronto. He was retained by the Anglo-French Mining Company of London, to which he began to make regular visits.

Tyrrell’s influence on the development of metalliferous mining in Canada was considerable; he took a great interest in the famous silver mining district of Cobalt, Ontario, but his greatest achievement was the discovery of the Kirkland Lake gold deposit, which he predicted from structural reasoning. The sinking of a 600-meter shaft proved the orebody and led to the founding of the highly successful Kirkland Lake Gold Mining Company. Tyrrell was president of the company until a few years before he died.


I. Original Works. Tyrrell’s works include a series of accounts of his expeditions in Report. Geological Survey of Canada. See especially Assiniboine and Saskatchewan, 2 (1887), EI–152; northwestern Manitoba, 5 (1892), EI–235; country between Athabasca Lake and Churchill, 6 (1893), DI–120; Doobaunt, Kazam, and Ferguson rivers, 9 (1896), FI–218.

Among his numberous publihsed papers the following deserve mention:“The Glaciation of North Central Canada,” in Journal of Geology, 6 (1898), 147–160;“Natural Resources of the Barren Lands of Canada,” in Scots. Geogr. Mag., 15 (1900), 126–138;“The Gold Bearing Alluvial Deposits of the Klondike District,” in Transactions of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy8 (1900), 217–229;“Concentration of Gold of the Klondike,” in Economic Geology, 2 (1907), 393–399;“The Law of the Pay Streak in Placer Deposits,” in Transactions of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, 21 (1912), 593–605. He was responsible for the descriptions of the geology and mineral resources of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in A. Shortt and A. G. Doughty, ed., Canada and Its Provinces, XXII (Ottawa, 1914), 583–660.

II. Seconary Literature. For a biography up to year 1930, see W. J. Loudon. A Canadian Geologist (Toronto, 1930), with photograph. See also“Award of the Murchison Medal,” in Proceedings of the Geological Society, 54 (1918), xlii–xliv;“Award of the Wollaston Medal,”ibid., 103 (1947), xxxvi–xxxviii; and obituary by D. R. D(erry), ibid., no, 1563 (1958), 130–133.

K. C. Dunham

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Joseph Burr Tyrrell (tĬr´əl), 1858–1957, Canadian explorer and geologist, b. Ontario. In 1881 he joined the Canadian Geological Survey as an explorer and in 1883 accompanied G. M. Dawson on his expedition to the Canadian Rockies. He made other explorations in W and N Canada, but his best-known feat was his crossing (1893) of the barren grounds from Lake Athabaska to Chesterfield Inlet; his total journey, largely by canoe, covered some 3,200 mi (5,150 km). He compiled Documents Relating to the Early History of Hudson Bay (1931, repr. 1968). Tyrrell's brother, James Williams Tyrrell, 1863–1945, accompanied him on the expedition across the barren grounds and wrote an account of it in Across the Sub-Arctics of Canada (1897).