Dorothy Newton Swales

“I watched the bees pollinating the flowers and was fascinated at the way they combed their bodies with their two front legs and packed pollen in a pollen basket on their hind legs … It opened a door to me which has never closed.” (Dorothy Swales, From the Outdoor Trail)


Born in 1901 in Quebec and raised on a farm in the village of Plaisance, Dorothy Newton Swales grew up surrounded by an abundance of nature. In her memoir From the Outdoor Trail from Farm to University, Swales cites the pivotal moment when, at eight years old, she entered and won a competition for children that involved planting a garden, taking notes, and sending in observations of the natural world. The prize, a book by W. I. Beecroft called “Who’s Who Among the Wild Flowers?” provided Swales with descriptions of local plants and became her guide to learning about the flora surrounding her. As a young child, Swales was introduced to Canadian botanist and artist, Faith Fyles, by Swales' older brother who worked as an agronomist for the Canadian government. Fyles assisted Swales with flower identification and encouraged her budding interest in botany. According to Swales' son David, this mentorship "set the course of Dorothy's life."

Enchantment, fascination, and curiosity – these early experiences with the natural world would profoundly shape not only how Swales would see the myriad connections between humans and more-than-human lives but influence how she approached the more-than-human world in her interactions as an educator, botanist, and herbarium curator.

Inspired by her love of the natural world and encouraged by her siblings who all went on to pursue higher education in the natural sciences, Swales received a Bachelor of Science in Plant Pathology at Macdonald College in 1921, where she was one of the only female students in her cohort. It was at this time that Dorothy Swales, like other women in the sciences such as Fyles, would have learned to swim against the tide of gendered conceptions about what a scientist should look like and the kind of research that they were qualified to undertake.


[Image of Dorothy Newton as an undegraduate (centre-white blouse)]

In The Outdoor Trail from Farm to University, Swales describes how her older sister Margaret Newton, who would later become a specialist in wheat rust pathogens, was discouraged by colleagues from applying to an agricultural college as “no women had entered an agricultural college in Canada before 1914…[and] she would probably fail the practical courses.” Margaret refused to give up and, as Swales attests, “opened a door to women in agriculture.”  

Swales pursued a Master of Science in Bacteriology at Macdonald in 1923. For her graduate research, she travelled to the Atlantic Biological Station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick to research under the guidance of the director of the station, Dr. A.G. Huntsman. Swales was tasked with exploring how to better understand the relationship between marine spore-forming bacteria and the canning industry, primarily herring, lobster, and shellfish. Swales’ investigation into spore-forming bacteria at Passamaquoddy Bay is an example of witnessing the small agencies of the tiniest actors.

After the successful completion of her degree, she later received a Hudson Bay Scholarship to pursue a PhD in Mycology at the University of Manitoba with a focus on fungal sexuality under the supervision of "poet scientist" Dr. A.H. Reginald Buller. During her PhD, Swales travelled to Europe to both improve her German language skills, a university requirement for acquiring her doctorate, and also to deepen her understanding of botany through course lectures and hands-on field work.


[Image of Dorothy Newton in Switzerland with colleagues]

Swales returned to Macdonald College in September 1930 where she lectured in mycology and systematic botany until 1935. Swales would later return to Macdonald College in 1964 as the first woman to curate the College Herbarium.

Swales’ curation was shaped by the view that an herbarium was more than just a room full of cabinets and plant sheets. In her unprocessed notes entitled “The Herbarium”, Swales writes that an herbarium “at its best can be a lively useful centre reflecting the outdoors of your own locality, of far parts of Canada, and even of the mysteries of Lappland and Siberia.” Upon taking over the curatorship of the Macdonald College Herbarium, Dr. Swales chose to specialize in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, regions which touched the northernmost part of Quebec.    

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[Image of Dorothy Swales at Macdonald College]

Plants collected by students had provided a solid start to the Arctic collection. Swales decided to conduct her own fieldwork across the Canadian Arctic, collecting plants that could be exchanged abroad, thus building and sustaining connections with international herbaria. The beauty of the Arctic fascinated Swales. As she writes in her unprocessed notes entitled “Gardens of the Eastern Canadian Arctic” on her travels to Iqaluit, “Arctic flowers are beautiful. There are few people who are not awed into silence and wonder in the midst of the tundra in July, covered literally with thousands of plants in bloom at once.” 

After retiring in 1971, Swales would continue to assist students and faculty at Macdonald Campus as Emeritus Curator. As her son David remembers, Swales was like a mother to international students far from home studying at Macdonald Campus. In Swales' memoir, she includes a letter from Joanne Marchand, a former student who went on to teach biology. Marchand wrote, “every time I am asked who my inspirations have been… I always tell them about my summer at the herbarium [and] I tell them about you, your life’s work, about how you accomplished what most women (then and even now) could only dream of. And I tell them how fortunate I am to have worked with you, to have your friendship… your influence and inspiration continues even though you are miles away.”


[Image of Dorothy Swales conducting fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic]

All photos courtesy of her son Dr. David Swales. Quotations are taken from her memoir and unprocessed herbarium notes.