John Allan (1884-1955)

Dr. John AllanWhen Dr. John Allan became a professor in the early '20s, the job required calloused hands, sturdy legs and no small measure of grit-at least in his chosen discipline. In our age of computer simulations and analyses, it's easy to forget that geologists once worked mostly with hammers, diamond saws and chisels, hiking into remote areas of the wilderness to get at the stuff of their trade.

Geology was so dangerous in those days that Allan almost lost his life surveying the bank of the North Saskatchewan river in the summer of 1925. His boat struck a rock and capsized 32 kilometres out of Rocky Mountain House, tossing $500 worth of equipment overboard-a small fortune at the time.

Yet it was precisely "Hardrock" Allan's adventurous spirit that pointed us towards the most lucrative of Alberta's natural resources. He conducted the original survey of the Drumheller Coal Field in 1922, and published the first map of Alberta's coal fields, today updated regularly by the Energy Utilities Board. In 1925, he published the first geological map of Alberta, a milestone in the history of the province. The prosperity Alberta enjoys today owes much to Allan's studies of coal, oil and natural gas.

You could say Allan had his eye on rock since the day he came into this world. He was born in Aubrey, Quebec on the west side of the Chateauguay valley in a post-glacial marine basin. Raised on a farm very close to the Champlain fault, he found himself enchanted by the unique structure and drifted naturally into the study of such formations. He graduated from McGill University with an arts degree (specializing in geology) in 1907, went on to earn his masters in science the following year, and received his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1912. His thesis, published by the Geological Survey of Canada as Memoir 55, examined the geology and petrography of the Ice River Region in the Field area of the Rockies. Allan fell in love with the mountains doing this research, and the passion would remain with him for the rest of his life. He became an exceptional and fearless climber; according to his graduate student, Dr. Charles Stelck, "there was no place he wouldn't go."

Henry Marshall Tory, the university's founding president, hired Allan to start a geology department at the University of Alberta in 1912. The young professor was made head of the department the following year, and held that position until his retirement in 1949. During his 37 years in the department he amassed a huge collection of fossil and mineral specimens, as well as a number of native artifacts, creating one of the best geological museums in the country. According to engineering historian George Ford, Allan "carted rocks from every area of Alberta to the upper floor of the Arts Building," overloading it to such an extent that cracks began to appear on the building's exterior. He also meticulously documented his more than 30 field trips with photographs. The University Archives hold almost 7,000 of his negatives.

Throughout his career, even when it wasn't obvious, he remained convinced Alberta's economic future lay in natural resources. In 1920, based on information Allan submitted, the provincial government appointed him and four others to form a "Scientific and Industrial Research Council," now the Alberta Research Council. He also founded the Alberta Geological Survey, as "the first provincial geologist living and working in Alberta," says Willem Langenberg, currently with the Survey.

Allan's survey work included huge expanses of territory in both British Columbia and Alberta. He conducted surveys at Lesser Slave Lake, as well as along the North Saskatchewan, the Red Deer, and the South Saskatchewan rivers all the way to the Saskatchewan border. He also surveyed the land between Golden and the mountains east of Banff. As a consultant, he worked for the Calgary Power Company, submitting the geological profile for the Spray Lakes water power project and the Ghost River project.

Allan's enthusiasm for his work continued into his retirement in 1949 with more than 100 research papers under his belt. But that drive took its toll on his health in later years and he was forced to slow down. When the geographic boards of Alberta and Canada named a mountain in the Rockies after him in 1948 (site of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games), he expressed regret at not being able to take in the scenery from its summit. He died of a heart attack in his Edmonton home in 1955.