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.