Francis Harper (1886-1972)


  • Christopher J. Norment



Biology, Biographies, Harper, Francis, 1886-1972, Animal collections, Plant collections, Traditional knowledge, Expeditions, Natural history, Nueltin Lake region, Manitoba/Nunavut, Athabasca, Lake, region, Alberta/Saskatchewan, Windy River region, Nunavut, Great Slave Lake region, N.W.T.


... Harper became an avid and well-rounded naturalist at an early age. In 1914, he received his B.A. degree from Cornell University and was employed as a zoologist on a Geological Survey of Canada expedition to the Lake Athabasca-Great Slave Lake region. The expedition, under the leadership of Charles Camsell, left Athabasca Landing on 18 May 1914 and returned there on 10 October of the same year. Most of June was spent on Lake Athabasca, while July and August were spent exploring the Tazin and Taltson River area, an unmapped region whose biology was at the time completely unknown. Harper gathered information on the plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals encountered during the journey. ... Harper returned in 1920 to the Athabasca area, where he was in the field from early April to early November with Hamilton "Mack" Laing and J.A. Loring. ... Harper published a series of technical papers on the plants, fishes, reptiles and amphibians, mammals, and physiographic and faunal regions of the Lake Athabasca-Great Slave Lake area, based on his fieldwork of 1914 and 1920. ... Harper realized a dream of more than 30 years in 1947, when he undertook a biological reconnaissance of the Nueltin Lake area in the southern Keewatin. ... Harper arrived at the Windy River post, which was operated by the family of Fred Schweder Sr., on 31 May. He brought with him a young zoology student from the University of Toronto, Farley Mowat. ... Harper immediately began collecting specimens and natural history information on mollusks, spiders, fishes, birds, mammals, ectoparasites of birds and mammals, mosses, and vascular plants. For most of his stay, Harper remained near the Windy River camp, and he continued fieldwork until his departure by plane on 4 December 1947. ... In addition to providing Harper with a base of operations at Windy River, Fred Schweder Sr.'s sons - Charles and Fred Jr. - assisted him by collecting specimens and providing numerous faunal observations, which they had gathered during their years of travel and residence in the Nueltin Lake area. Mowat and Harper, however, did not get along well, and on 7 July Harper dismissed Mowat from the expedition. ... The split between Mowat and Harper was severe and permanent, as separate publications on the birds of the Nueltin Lake area by the two do not mention that they were once associated, while Harper gave no indication that anyone had accompanied him to Nueltin Lake in May. Harper returned from Nueltin Lake with a tremendous amount of information on the natural history of the area, including specimens of over 800 plants, 117 birds, and 113 mammals. ... Francis Harper is probably best considered a relatively minor figure among biologists who were active in the Canadian North during the first half of the twentieth century. ... his publications reflect his proclivity for collecting large amounts of observational information. ... Biologists contemplating quantitative studies in the region, particularly those related to birds or mammals, would be well advised to read Harper's relevant publications, since natural history remains the basis for all modern, well-designed ecological research projects.






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