ISSN 1188-603X

No. 464 February 14, 2013 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O. Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2

This issue of BEN is devoted to Alf Erling Porsild and his recent biography by Wendy Dathan. For accompanying illustrations, please see:


Dathan, Wendy. 2012.
The Reindeer Botanist. Alf Erling Porsild, 1901-1977. Northern Lights Series, Vol. 14. Calgary: University of Calgary [Copublished with the Arctic institute of North America]. 726 p. ISBN 978-1-55238-586-9 [soft cover] Price: $44.95 CAD, $51.95 USD

One of Canada's most remarkable botanists, Alf Erling Porsild (1901-1977) grew up on the Arctic Station in West Greenland and later served as curator of botany at the National Museum of Canada. He collected thousands of specimens, greatly enlarging the National Herbarium and making it a superb research centre. For nearly twenty years, Porsild studied reindeer activities in Alaska and the Northwest Territories as part of the Reindeer Project designed to encourage grazing animal husbandry among aboriginal peoples. He published extensively, and his meticulous research and observations have particular relevance today with the growing concern over global warming in the Arctic.

This long-awaited biography traces the challenging and adventurous career of a remarkable, little-known scientist who battled rivalry, bureaucracy, personal disappointment and private tragedy. In the end, Porsild earned universal respect for his prodigious publications and intimate knowledge of the people, plants and land around Canada's Arctic Circle. This book is also the first full story of the ill-fated Canadian Reindeer Project and the only description of the exploration and mapping of the Canadian flora and growth of the National Herbarium from about 1920 to Porsild's retirement in 1967.

Dr. Josef Svoboda, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, University of Toronto: "Every era and field has their heroes. Dr. A.E. Porsild is one of them for Canadian Arctic Botany. Porsild is one of the unforgettable Canadian pioneers of science whose exciting life story, now fully revealed, will serve as a great example for younger generations of dedicated enthusiasts of all fields."

Wendy Dathan studied geography and botany at McGill University and served as Assistant/Acting Curator of the McGill Herbarium before undertaking research for her master's thesis on Porsild's Canadian Reindeer Project years. She is an enthusiastic naturalist and author of two books about her travels and her experiences of living on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. Copublished with the Arctic institute of North America.


From: Bruce Bennett

Botanists are often thought of as mild mannered, quietly studying amongst mounds of floras, surrounded by large metal cabinets. Few envision such folks facing the demands and dangers of the field work that has attracted so many of us to the pursuit. Still fewer have experienced the challenges presented to Erling Porsild and his brother (Robert Thorbjørn - or Bob) in their endeavours to transport and establish a herd of reindeer from Alaska to the Mackenzie Delta, Northwest Territories. Alf Erling Porsild was an eminent Arctic botanist who shaped our understanding of the flora of the western NWT, Alaska, and Yukon, but who also had a keen interest in geological processes and the natural history that shaped and shared the land with the plants. It was Porsild that brought the Greenland Inuit term "Pingo" into the common English usage (at least common for northerners). The Reindeer Botanist's 726 pages chronicles his career from a young student through his term as the chief botanist with the National Museum of Canada from 1936-1967. It is a detailed, intimate look into the life, adventures and motivations of his complex personality, explored using the meticulous notes and letters kept by him and others. The Reindeer Botanist is a thoroughly enjoyable book for those that relish a good adventure story, steeped in history that explores more than the land, but also the historical fabric that has shaped our understanding of northern botany.

For a full bibliography of A.F. Porsild publications:

Soper, J. H., and W. J. Cody. 1978.
Alf Erling Porsild, M.B.E., F.R.S.C. (1901-1977). Canadian Field-Naturalist 92: 298-304.


Presentations were held at the CMN Rock Gallery and Theatre in Ottawa, 22 November 2012.

Compiled and submitted by Ludger Müller-Wille (McGill University, Montréal, QC)

Photo Plate:


Meg Beckel (President and CEO, Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, ON)

Good afternoon, special guests, ladies and gentlemen and welcome. My name is Meg Beckel and I am the President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

It gives me great pleasure to co-host this book launch for The Reindeer Botanist with the University of Calgary Press. The Museum has a long history with the Arctic; in fact, we will be celebrating a full year of Arctic activities in 2013 to commemorate the first Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1916. Some of the significant pieces in our collections from this turn of the century adventure are presently on tour in an Arctic traveller that we collaborated on with the Canadian Museum of Civilization - now the Canadian Museum of History.

You should know that the Canadian Museum of Nature continues to have strong ties to the Arctic and that 65% of our research activities take place there.

The Reindeer Botanist himself, Alf Erling Porsild, was greatly responsible for building the museum's plant collection during numerous field expeditions in the Western Arctic in the 1930s and 1940s. He quickly established an international reputation for his work and produced over 100 scientific publications, mostly relating to the Arctic's flora and fauna. Today, the museum's herbarium maintains the best collection of Canadian Arctic plants in the world, and we continue to build on Porsild's legacy by leading the five-year Arctic Flora Project. This initiative will produce - for the first time - a comprehensive guide to all flowering plants in Canada's Arctic regions.

Our museum also houses the Nunavut fossil collections at the Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec, just 20 minutes from here. Some of our most incredible discoveries have taken place there - one I am able to tell you about - a missing link discovery - Puijila darwini - and another that is going to be announced soon, but that unfortunately is under embargo - but stay tuned, the news is coming soon! [See]

I am equally pleased to say that the Canadian Museum of Nature had a bit of a role with the publication, as one of our own, long-time researcher emeritus, Ernie Brodo, wrote the foreword for this book. Ernie is also an accomplished author and was responsible for the beautiful and very informative book the Lichens of North America that was published a few years ago. Ernie is with us today and I would now like to invite Ernie to say a few words and to introduce our next speaker.


Irwin M. Brodo (Senior Researcher Emeritus, Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa)

I came to the Canadian Museum of Nature (or the National Museum, as it was called then) in 1965. A position just opened for a lichenologist, and so Howard Crum, the curator of non-vascular plants, and Erling Porsild, the Chief Botanist, invited me to apply. I hadn't realized it at the time, but Dr. Porsild, who was known mainly for his collections and studies of arctic vascular plants, had strong interests in other realms of botany, especially the lichens. He collected lichens in the arctic when he was involved in the great reindeer project in the 1920s, and continued to pick them up in his arctic surveys over the years.

At our first meeting, when I came up to Ottawa for an interview, I remember him as very kind, soft-spoken and yet assertive. He had retained his lovely Danish accent, and that, together with his soft voice, sometimes made him hard to understand, although his English was perfect. I describe that initial meeting in my Foreword to Wendy's book, so I won't repeat it here, except to say that I got the feeling that he would be a pleasant man to work for, and an exciting man to get to know. As it turned out, I was right on both accounts.

Although Erling Porsild was a busy man, he often found time to recount some of his experiences during his reindeer days or while on some botanical expedition to the arctic. Sometimes his comments would relate to his colleagues or associates, and he didn't mince words in offering his opinion on their work. In a way, I was grateful to be in a peripheral field, and not likely to come under the same critical scrutiny he levelled at his peers.

As a boss, Erling was just about perfect, at least from my perspective. He rarely called meetings (in fact, I can't recall a single one), preferring to call his staff one by one to his office for business that needed our attention. He would be genuinely interested in my opinion about certain things, and would debate the point in a friendly sort of way until he could form a decision. When I got in trouble with the Museum (yes, yes, it happened, and more than once), he would come to my defence and straighten things out. He sometimes had dinner parties or receptions at his home, and everyone was invited. His wife, Margrit, prepared the most scrumptious European desserts, and the conversations were always lively.

Since I am not really an arctic botanist, I am not the one to comment on his monumental contributions to the field. Suffice to say, his articles and books still form an indispensable source of information on the plants of the vast Canadian north. He was much more than a collector, although his collections alone would make him one of Canada's most prolific contributors. His deep knowledge of the taxonomy and classification of vascular plants made his revisions and monographs authoritative and immensely valuable.

I feel very privileged indeed to have known Erling Porsild. Fortunately, through Wendy Dathan's remarkable book, you will all now have an opportunity to get to know him as well. The book takes you on his travels through the arctic blizzards, into his rustic camps, and puts you at his side as he writes letters by lantern-light to bureaucrats in Ottawa, waiting months for a reply. You will learn about his years in Greenland, his war-time duties, his job in Ottawa, and his struggles to earn academic credentials. You're in for a treat, and so it is time to move on with the launch of Wendy's book.

To introduce Wendy, I would like to call upon Dr. Ludger Müller-Wille, retired professor of Geography and Northern Studies of the Department of Geography at McGill University. Dr. Müller-Wille has spent his entire career studying the cultural anthropology and geography of northern regions, first in Fenno-Scandia, and then, after coming to Canada from Germany in 1977, with Inuit, Dene, Naskapi and Cree people in our own north. He is the author of a new book describing the Inuit and Whalers of Baffin Island through the eyes of Wilhelm Weike as well as scores of articles on northern anthropology, focusing especially on the work of Franz Boas. As Ludger will explain, he was Wendy's mentor and thesis supervisor, and so there is no better individual than he to describe the beginnings of Wendy's magnum opus, The Reindeer Botanist. Please welcome Dr. Ludger Müller-Wille.


Ludger Müller-Wille (retired professor of Geography, McGill University, Montréal, QC)

I thank Dr. Brodo for the kind introduction and I am pleased to present to you the author of The Reindeer Botanist. Alf Erling Porsild, 1901-1977, Wendy Dathan, who, today, is deservedly at centre stage after having succeeded to reach every writer's pinnacle to see one's own work in print after a long and often arduous journey. In fact, for Wendy this journey began many decades ago, and it shows her determination and assertiveness to have pursued the goal to highlight the personal and professional achievements of one of the most renowned botanists of Canada, who documented and broadened our knowledge of the Canadian flora, particularly in the subarctic and arctic environments.

It was in late winter in 1984 at the Geography Department of McGill University that I had a quite unexpected visit by Wendy, who intended to pursue a Master's after she had finished her B.A. in the same department some three decades earlier. For some time she had been connected with the McGill Herbarium at Macdonald College and with Montreal's Field Naturalists and now wanted to channel her unbounded energies to explore the life and work of Alf Erling Porsild, the botanist she admired but never had met, and to obtain an advanced degree at the same time. She had talked to a number of professors at McGill for guidance and support, but none felt ready to supervise her graduate work. Somehow through the Northern connections she came to see me, already with some frustration that she might not succeed in conveying her ideas.

She presented her plan to me to conduct research into Porsild's contributions in the 1920s and 1930s and his efforts to bring thousands of reindeer from Alaska to the Mackenzie Delta in northwestern Canada to provide economic opportunities for aboriginal peoples. She was quite surprised when I responded that I was agreeable to support her plan, knew of Porsild's work, and had even met him with my wife and son once in Ottawa. Furthermore, my wife's father, William A. Weber, had been a close colleague of his and the families had met socially several times. As it happened these connections were later transferred to Wendy and her work and have lasted until today.

In the fall of 1984 Wendy began her archival research and soon I began getting contemplative and hilarious notes such as A Day in the Life of a Researcher or Lost in the National Archives Canada describing the joys and sufferings while trying to piece together the life of an individual. She succeeded in her work and in early 1988 submitted her thesis entitled The Reindeer Years: Contribution of A. Erling Porsild to the Continental Northwest, 1926-1935, covering one decade of Porsild's life. The thesis was passed by all examiners with highest marks, with Kenneth Hare, the well-known professor of geography formerly at McGill, at that time emeritus at the University of Toronto, writing: "The thesis should be published by the Arctic Institute [of North America]. Porsild was a governor, and an important figure in its history. This bit of history should not be lost."

And it was not to be lost although it would take a while. The Arctic Institute was contacted, but publication was not feasible at the time. Seventeen years passed till 2005, before Wendy would turn again to the 17 boxes filled with materials on Porsild's life and work stored safely in the attic of her home in Grand Harbour on Grand Manan Island, where she had found her career as the curator at the local museum. From that point on Wendy was determined to expand her master's thesis into a full-fledged biography of Porsild, the Reindeer Botanist, as she called him. If that was not enough work to fill retirement, she somehow found time to write and publish two well-received and endearing autobiographical books with Shoreline Press of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue in Québec in 2005 and 2009, Bauxite, Sugar and Mud. Memoirs of Living in Colonial Guyana, 1928-1944, and Swallowtail Calling: A Naturalist Dreams of Grand Manan Island.

By late 2010, Wendy had her new book manuscript in hand, having overcome many archival hurdles with respect to correspondence, files, photos, and maps to enhance Porsild's biography in extraordinary detail. Again she turned to the Arctic Institute of North America, which passed her on to the University of Calgary Press that now looked after the Institute's publications. The forthcoming support and encouragement Wendy received by reviewers, the Press, her sons John and Tony, and her circle of dedicated colleagues and friends, as expressed by Dr. Brodo in the foreword, made it possible that we can join Wendy now at the launch of her latest book in the very building that once housed the National Herbarium to which Alf Erling Porsild devoted his professional career to make it into an internationally recognized place for the conservation of the Flora of Canada.

Wendy, my heartfelt congratulations to a task well-done. I leave it to you to present your adventures with Alf Erling Porsild, 'The Reindeer Botanist.'


Wendy Dathan (Naturalist and retired museum curator, Grand Harbour, Grand Manan, NB)

My goodness! I don't think I need to say anything after those wonderful introductions. Ernie, I have to thank you so much for all you have done--you and the National Herbarium and George Argus who is here--all the help that you gave me from the beginning of working on this project all these many years ago, and Ludger, who has been an absolute source of assistance, and has held my hand and done all kinds of jobs for me--for his eldest student, because I think I was when I started. I was 49 years old when I agreed to do this and I have just had my 78th birthday. That's how long I have been working on it.

It is so wonderful to see so many new and old faces, old friends, here. I can't tell you how much pleasure it gives me to see you all. Many, many people to thank, of course, for this. Apart from the Herbarium and McGill University, also extended to the whole of the Müller-Wille family, who have been absolutely wonderful. Linna, Ludger's wife, suffered all summer doing the index, and their son Ragnar struggled with maps and illustrations.

Linna's father Bill Weber in Colorado was always there with encouragement, advice, and support. On Grand Manan I had Bill Edgar, and there is someone here, David Parker, who helped me with my computer problems. And the list goes on and on. Bill Barr, certainly, of the Arctic Institute of North America. When I sent him the manuscript, it was at a point when I had actually been turned down by another publisher that I will not name, and told that no publisher in Canada would ever touch this book. So to say that I was slightly discouraged was an understatement, and Bill Barr took the manuscript and said he loved it. He thought it would be just what he wanted for his Northern Lights Series, and it would be done with the University of Calgary Press, who could not have been nicer to work with. They've all been absolutely fantastic. So when I talk about all these people to whom I owe thanks, I have to tell you that I started calling it 'our book', not 'mine'.

Anyway, on to the aspects of it. I did not know Erling Porsild. I knew of the book that he had done of the Illustrated Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (1957) when I went to Baffin Island. I knew he had an interest in edible wild plants, which is what I was studying at the time. But I didn't know him. Now, how do you start a biography of somebody you don't know? I figured I'd have to do it like a jigsaw puzzle. I don't know if anybody else does jigsaw puzzles, but you start with the outside edges, and then you start with the colours and you form them into themes. Then you fit the themes in together as you go along, and then you reach a point where there are these blanks and you need to find that one elusive piece that's going to fit into it. That seemed to be the best way to me to go about it. So the first part of the puzzle, which was to define it, was to go to the correspondence, which was voluminous, but accessible to me thanks to Ernie.

And I was able to go through and work through it all. I gave myself as my border the National Herbarium, the 1920s and 30s post Macoun years with Malte-Oscar Malte-and then Erling Porsild, picking it up 1935 to his retirement in 1967. One of the things that I noticed about that period was how unknown our flora was, especially our northern flora. So that the work that was needed was to go out, to get into places that were basically very inaccessible and make collections, bring them back and classify them. And that seemed to be a real necessity. But we are talking about a herbarium with one botanist! Very little other help.

Porsild was able to start collecting in the North through the Canadian Reindeer Project. That was the project that was going to bring reindeer to Canada, but the first objective of Finnie with the Department of the Interior was to send both Porsild and his brother Robert up to Alaska, look at the Alaskan reindeer industry, look at what was needed to run it, what the animals needed for pasturage, and then to check out the Northwest Territories to see if the pasturage was adequate, or even better than adequate, in order to support a reindeer herd of our own. So that was the first objective and the Porsild boys went up and they did a very good job of it. That meant that in October 1929 when the stock market was crashing in New York, Erling Porsild was up in Alaska buying Canada's reindeer herd-nearly two thousand five hundred animals that had to be trekked over the Brooks Range to the Mackenzie River Delta, to the East Branch where both Porsilds worked on creating Reindeer Station. The drive was supposed to take a year. The deer did not arrive until 1935, and Erling Porsild was quoted as saying if they hadn't come then they'd have taken him out in a box because it was such a long, long, long wait for the deer to come.

Meanwhile, he had other instructions. He had instructions from this museum about what he had to do when he was up there. What the instructions were can come down in one word-collect: Anderson wanted him to collect mammals; Taverner wanted him to collect birds; Jenness wanted him to collect artefacts of human history; and Malte, of course, said plants-great, great numbers of plants.

So, if we begin the next part of our jigsaw puzzle we come to the herbarium, and I do have to tell you that when Erling Porsild was hired we were incredibly lucky! Imagine that we got a young man who had been thoroughly trained at his father's side-his father, Morten Porsild, ran the Danish Arctic Research Station for Greenland-he was thoroughly familiar with the North. He was thoroughly familiar with the flora of that area. And not only that, he had gone to Denmark and he had studied under Ostenfeld, who was also an Arctic specialist. Coming to Canada he could bring that with him as a starting point.

I wanted, actually, this to be two books. I wanted to have The Reindeer Botanist as book number one, and then Mr. Porsild of the Museum as book number two. They told me I couldn't do it, so this is why you have a book that you can break your toe on if you're not careful how you handle it. But with Mr. Porsild in the herbarium, as I said, you have one man struggling away, struggling through the depression years when there wasn't much money, struggling with his own problems of being recognized without that piece of scholastic paper that would make him a Ph.D. Although he had the knowledge, he didn't have the piece of paper. And then came the war, by which point we now have half a botanist, because he is seconded to the consular service in Greenland. He goes there in the summers and is back at the herbarium in the winter.

One of the things I thought was really fascinating about this period was what was going on in Ottawa during those years. The herbarium had a terrible time. It was being moved around all over the place because they needed offices for the war effort. So it was really very interesting to see what Ottawa was like in that particular period. End of the war and all of a sudden things changed. You had expansion in the herbarium, things could settle down, you could really, really do things. And what I could think for the Porsild era the most exciting time was probably 1959 when they had their first International Botanical Congress, and all of the staff were all involved in that, and it was a huge success story for botany in Canada-and a wonderful way to go out, really, in a sense.

Porsild, by then, had become a man who was very important in anything to do with northern affairs, to do with the Arctic Circle, with the Arctic Institute of North America, with advice on all hands, and honours began to pour in, including his very, very happy university degree that he finally got from Copenhagen in 1955.

So I think I just kind of touched on points, but you know you can fill in a lot more of these things-things to do with his family, all of these other little pieces that can be fitted into that whole picture. But it was a very fascinating jigsaw puzzle to do, and I thank you, Ernie, very much for setting me off on it. It changed my life in ways I was never expecting. I didn't know where it would take me, but I have enjoyed it. I hope you will enjoy meeting him in the covers of the book. Thank you very much.


Meg Beckel

Thank you, Wendy--a most interesting talk and an exciting day for you and University of Calgary Press. I know that many of our guests will want to speak with you and learn even more about your experience writing The Reindeer Botanist, so I invite all of you here with us this afternoon to join us for an informal gathering and book signing in the lobby just outside the theatre, so that you can meet Wendy in person and enjoy some light refreshments. Thanks for joining us and enjoy your evening.

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