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Manitoba History: Review: Wendy Dathan, The Reindeer Botanist: Alf Erling Porsild, 1901-1977

by Graham A. MacDonald
Parksville, BC

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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As a federal civil servant, the Danish-Canadian, Alf Porsild, preferred to travel underground publicity-wise, as most Canadian politicians prefer and more recently insist. He did not court controversy, but it came his way on occasion, and, being an obsessive scientist, he resented all such intrusion on his work. Nevertheless, he understood the meaning of duty and met controversy head-on, even if it was a waste of his valuable time. The full extent of Porsild’s activities are set out in painstaking detail here by Wendy Dathan, hence a book which is probably twice as long as it need be, owing to an excessive inclusion of long block quotations. Nevertheless, those who are interested in Porsild will have all they could possibly wish for. The author did not know Porsild, but worked at the important Herbarium at McGill, where she became interested in his work. For purposes of the biography, she was granted full access to the relevant papers.

There are four main elements to the biography: Porsild’s early years in Greenland; his contributions to the controversial northern Reindeer Project after 1926; his general contribution to Canada’s National Herbarium in Ottawa; and his wartime service as Vice-Consul to Greenland. When in 1926, M. O. Malte, Chief Botanist of the National Herbarium, was seeking help for a proposed Reindeer Project for the Mackenzie Delta area, he turned to Morten P. Porsild, the Director of the Greenland Arctic Research Station at Godhaven, Disco Island. He had been in charge there since 1906, and it is where his son Alf was born and raised. Rich in flora and fauna, Disco Bay was the area of western Greenland from which sprang (as Manitoba historian Tryggvi Oleson, controversially argued) the mixed-blood Thule Inuit people. Because of Alf Porsild’s knowledge of Arctic natural history and his unique upbringing amongst the Greenland Inuit, Malte saw him as the ideal person for the Reindeer job and hired him.

Porsild was a superb field man. His efforts, along with those of his brothers in introducing reindeer (the domesticated version of caribou) into the high Arctic as a potential source of future income for Inuit peoples, are traced up to 1936. The work combined his expert knowledge of plants and reindeer feeding requirements with much coordination of persons and animals from as far away as the west coast of Alaska and Lapland. In 1936, the essential job was completed, and he was then hired as the Director of the Herbarium of the National Museum. In the previous ten years, he had squeezed in much survey work all over the Arctic, including Keewatin in 1930, the lands of the so-called Caribou Eskimo. He had become one of the best informed persons about our northern landscapes.

Porsild’s work at the Herbarium was interrupted by the war effort after 1940, when the fall of Denmark posed serious issues for the western allies. Chapters 29 through 35 detail Porsild’s years as a Vice-Consul to Greenland, where the presence of a cryolite mine (a rare commodity vital in aluminium production) was an important wartime concern, Germany having previously drawn upon the mine. Between 1940 and 1943, Porsild did not neglect his scientific work, but was glad to be relieved of his political duties in Greenland. The next twenty-five years were creative ones at the Herbarium, as Porsild worked to capitalize on his vast field experience and preserve a permanent record in Ottawa for the research community. His publishing record made him a well-known and respected member of the scientific community.

There are many asides and interesting episodes in the life of this unusual scientist, which cannot be detailed here but which are fully explored by the author and will repay the reader who tackles this large book, made more engaging by the many rare photos included. A. E. Porsild has been given his deserved place in the sun.

Page revised: 7 January 2018

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