Dr. Brenda Callan

Pioneering scientists remembered on eve of International Women’s Day

Dr. Brenda Callan, plant pathologist at Pacific Forestry Centre, talks about the women who inspire her

Studying a dying leaf of an arbutus tree on the edge of Francis-King Park in Saanich, Dr. Brenda Callan points out the different patterns of fungi that turn the iconic tree’s green leaves brown during winter.

“It’s winter distress and it’s pretty common as the arbutus are on the northernmost edge of their territory here,” says the research scientist with the Pacific Forestry Centre. “It doesn’t mean they’re dying, though they certainly are vulnerable.”

Callan, whose work focuses on fungi and trees, has fielded calls for the past 25 years from residents concerned about the health of arbutus trees in Greater Victoria. She’s also a local mushroom specialist, on call to emergency rooms where she identifies poisonous mushrooms eaten by unsuspecting victims.

Under her arm, Callan carries three reference books – two from the 1920s and one from the 1940s. All are originals produced by female scientists and still relevant today, but from a time when women were rarely recognized as leaders in their field.

The demographics of the science field today look starkly different on the eve of International Women’s Day (March 8), but the anniversary holds special significance for Callan. She relies regularly on the work of four Canadian women who were pioneers  in the field of fungi and their effect on trees and wood: Dr. Irene Mounce (1894-1987) of Cumberland, Dr. Clara Fritz (1889-1974), Dr. Ruth Macrae (1903-1993) and Dr. Mildred Nobles (1903-1993).

All four women were stellar scholars, picking up governor general awards for their marks and other honours at university.

“Every time I go into the (PFC) herbarium I come across correspondence of theirs with handwritten notes, typed notes, all of it stored there with fungi samples and still relevant,” Callan says. “A lot of the techniques they used are also still relevant, aside from the DNA sequencing we use now.”

Callan’s modern work includes the study of wood decay fungi on export logs to help decrease trade barriers, a vital part of the province’s forestry business.

Callan can’t help but wonder about the challenges her predecessors like Mounce – who traveled to Haida Gwaii to study the decaying affect of fungi on “airplane grade” sitka spruce – must have faced.

“To imagine (Mounce) in a skirt hiking through the woods to find samples, it’s not like now,” says Callan, wearing pants and comfortable hiking boots. “Actually, the women spent most of their time in the research lab.”

After studying at the universities of Manitoba and Toronto, and completing her field work at Haida Gwaii, Mounce made her way back to Vancouver Island to work at Saanichton’s Dominion Laboratory of Plant Pathology from 1942 to 1945. She would have worked longer, but had to resign at age 50 because she got married. Employment of married women was forbidden in Canada until 1955.

“Imagine how much more she could have accomplished,” Callan said. “But you do have to credit the men who hired her.”

Nobles never married, but instead worked at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa from 1935 to 1969. She identified more than 400 wood-decaying fungi now referenced at the PFC in Saanich.

“I know the work environment a far more equal place to be in terms of men and women now then when they worked,” Callan said. “But I can’t imagine what it would be like to face barriers and challenges in their male dominated world, and come up with constant breakthroughs.”

Did you know?

  • World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap report lists Canada at 19th in employment and wage equality, slightly up from its 2013 position of 21st, and one spot ahead of U.S. Iceland is No. 1.
  • Canada’s ratio of workers is nearly equal (.91 woman to every man) but wages for women are .71 per cent of that paid to men.
  • Canada also trails in the political realm, with just one woman in parliament for every three men and has never had an elected female prime minister (the provincial minister gender ratio is nearly equal). Advanced education continues to be a boon for Canadian women, who exceeded men in terms of post-secondary enrolment in 2014 at a ratio of 1.34 to 1.


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