History Trails
  The Founding
  Faculties, Departments & Schools
  People A-G
  People H-O
  People P-Z
  Buildings & Campus Development
  Affiliated Institutions
  Clubs & Groups
  Speeches and Addresses

An Eye on Rock: John A. Allan (1884-1955)

When 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 could be 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. "Never again," proclaimed an unnerved Allan after dragging himself from the torrent.

Yet it was precisely "Hardrock" Allan's adventurous spirit that pointed us towards the most lucrative of Alberta's natural resources. The prosperity enjoyed in Alberta today Owes much to Allan's studies of coal, oil and natural gas. 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.

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 that unique structure and drifted very naturally into the study of such formations. He graduated from McGill University specializing in geology in 1907, went on to earn his master's 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, B.C. 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 was 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 U of A's founding president, hired Allan to start a geology department at the University 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 (besides many Native artifacts), creating one of the best geological museums in the country. According to U of A 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, and the University Archives holds almost 7,000 of his negatives.

Allan's influence went well beyond his own department. As an instructor, his courses were considered essential to the engineer's training. As Ford puts it, his "lectures stayed with [students] throughout their careers," and some of them went on to discover Alberta's vast oil fields. But it wasn't just Allan's excellence in the classroom that impressed students. During the ' 30's, When securing employment meant everything, Allan drove from Edmonton to Lake Louise to tell a student about a job in the oil patch. As it turns out, that same student went on to become involved in Imperial Oil's 1947 Leduc oil strike, the discovery that initiated Alberta's modern-day oil industry.

Throughout his career, even when it wasn't so obvious, Allan remained convinced Alberta's economic future lay in natural resources. In 1920, based on information Allan had submitted, the provincial government appointed him along with 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 Calgary Power Company submitting the geological profile for the Spray Lakes water power project and the Ghost River project.

Allan, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1955, Collected many honors over his career. He was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada and became president of the geological section. He served as president of Alberta's Association of Professional Engineers, and was also president of the Canadian Institute Of Mining and Metallurgy. While coal was his chief interest, Allan always believed in the potential of oil as a major resource. It would hardly surprise him that today energy accounts for one quarter of Alberta's economic production. The province is considered to have 60 per cent of the country's conventional oil reserves, 85 per cent of its natural gas, and nearly all of its heavy oil and oil sands reserves.

Allan's enthusiasm for his work never let up, even when he retired in 1949 with more than 100 research papers under his belt. But that same 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 (it Would later he a venue for the 1988 Olympic Wiruer Games), the man who h~td scaled so many summits in his life expressed regret at not being able to take in the scenery from its peak.

Published Winter 1999.

ua logo