Alf Erling Porsild (1901-1977)

  • Hugh M. Raup
Keywords: Biology, Scientists, Research, Porsild, Alf Erling, 1901-1977, Biographies, Grazing, Reindeer, Reindeer husbandry, Animal food, North American Arctic, Greenland, Alaska, Great Bear Lake region, N.W.T., Reindeer Station, Mackenzie River region, Coppermine River region, N.W.T./Nunavut


Alf Erling Posild was well known and highly respected among biologists in both America and Europe. His research was meticulous, and rested solidly upon a clear understanding of the materials he worked with and of the theoretical concepts within which he operated. Born in Copenhagen, he spent much of his childhood in Greenland and spoke the Greenlandic Eskimo language fluently. He and his brother both worked in Greenland and learning how little was known about the flora of Greenland and the North American Arctic, set about planning a botanical expedition of their own on Baffin Island when they were suddenly invited by the Canadian government to undertake a survey of reindeer grazing potentials in northern Alaska and the Northwest Territories. Erling spent the next ten years on the reindeer study; his brother remaining with him for approximately half of that time. The brothers first went to Alaska where they studied the reindeer herds and their grazing habits. They made extensive trips in Northern Alaska and through the vast expanse that lies between Great Bear Lake and the Arctic Ocean, and between the Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers. In the course of evaluating grazing possibilities, they also collected flora. Erling set up, manned, and arranged to supply, a reindeer research station on the east side of the Mackenzie Delta. The Eskimos, being a nomadic hunting people, showed no ability or interest in herding domesticated livestock, and Erling himself went to Lapland to engage suitable teachers for them. Erling returned to Ottawa in 1935 and started to turn out a stream of publications based on his studies of the boreal American flora. In the following year he was appointed Acting Chief Botanist at the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa. In 1946 he became Chief Botanist at the National Museum of Canada, a position which he held until he retired in 1967. He was awarded a great many honours, one being Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America. His life was a saga of unique experiences and accomplishments. Erling Porsild died in Vienna on 13 November 1977. His older brother, Robert, died a few weeks later at his home in Whitehorse, Y.T. - on 30 December.