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Canada Paleontologist Edward Tozer explored Canada's Far North and its treasure trove of fossils

There are few more remote and forbidding places on the planet than the Arctic Archipelago. But for one young paleontologist, it held a deep and abiding fascination.

E.T. Tozer explored its sedimentary rock to find fossilized remnants of long-dead creatures that revealed clues to life on our planet and add greatly to our knowledge of the Triassic period (about 250 to 200 million years ago).

Not only was he one of the foremost specialists of his generation on that period, he was also a pioneer in the mapping and surveying the islands of the archipelago. Explorer, adventurer, scholar and mentor to a generation of paleontologists across the globe, Tozer died in Vancouver on Dec. 26 at the age of 82.

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Edward Timothy (Tim) Tozer was born on Jan. 13, 1928, in Potters Bar, Herefordshire, England, to Colonel Alfred Tozer and Olive Vera Bicknell. Alfred Tozer had a distinguished military career in the First World War and when war broke out again, he rejoined the army as part of the intelligence corps stationed at Dunkirk, France.

In 1940, Tozer's parents accepted an offer from friends in Canada to evacuate him and his two siblings to Sarnia, Ont., where they remained for most of the war and attended school. In 1944, the children returned to England and in 1945, Tozer entered Kings College University of Cambridge to study geology. In the meantime, the Tozer family had moved to Bosham, Sussex, which was a great sailing community. There, Tozer met a sailor named Ruth Wilson, who eventually would become his wife.

An opportunity to return to Canada arose when he was offered a position as a lecturer at the University of Western Ontario in 1948 with the understanding he could perhaps enroll for a PhD at the University of Toronto. At U of T he met Raymond Thorsteinsson, a fellow paleontologist who would become his best friend. The two also enjoyed a long professional association after they joined the Geological Survey of Canada in 1952.

It was an exhilarating time to be a part of the survey, the main purpose of which was to map Canada's vast territory and gather information that would lead to economic development.

More importantly for the two young men, it provided steady employment and an opportunity for further research. Tozer's early research was focused on non-marine mollusks, but that changed when he met senior paleontologist Frank McLearn at the survey. McLearn was the leading expert on the Triassic period and the tiny, marine mollusks called ammonoids that lived during that time. For the next 40 years, Tozer would make it his life's work to classify and name more than 200 species of ammonoids, which he would discover in the Arctic and Western Canada.

The high Arctic was of great interest to both Canada and the United States in large part because of the threat of attack from Soviet Russia. Although joint Canada-U.S. weather stations had been erected on remote islands as early as 1948, the Arctic Archipelago was still largely unknown. In 1954, Tozer made his first trip there when he travelled to the Mould Bay weather station on Prince Patrick Island. A native guide was hired from Resolute for the season and for the next six months, using sled dogs for transportation and on foot, Tozer conducted geological studies of the Arctic terrain.

In 1955, the survey organized an ambitious multidisciplinary reconnaissance mission to the high Arctic. "Operation Franklin" was the first time helicopters were used to transport men and equipment to remote sites. The 28-person expedition was led by scientist Y.O. Fortier and was split into different mapping parties, some led by Tozer and Thorsteinsson. The data collected covered more than 260,000 square kilometres and was invaluable to oil companies. More importantly, though, the Arctic Archipelago was now known and could be further explored by Canadians.

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While helicopters were the main mode of air transportation, they were expensive to run. The following year, Tozer was again planning a field expedition with Thorsteinsson when they were approached by a young pilot named Welland (Weldy) Phipps, who had experience flying in the Arctic and thought he might have a viable alternative. He proposed that a modified Piper Super Cub with special balloon tires could be used to land in difficult terrain and would be less costly than a helicopter to operate. Tozer and Thorsteinsson decided to give it a try and in the process logged a total of 300 hours of flying time to map an area of 23,800 square miles. It was the beginning of a new era of transportation for Arctic research.

1958 was important for Tozer in another respect. That was the year he and Ruth were married in England, at St. Nicholas Parish Church in West Itchenor. After a honeymoon in Italy, the couple settled in Ottawa and eventually had two children. Paul arrived in 1959, followed by Sally in 1962.

Sally Tozer said her parents were a study in contrasts, but that "they completed each other." Her mother was fastidious about keeping order; her father was not. "His offices at work and at home were a tidy mess," she said.

Tozer worked long hours at the survey and was often away on field trips, but when there was time, the family indulged their passion for sailing. The Tozers also entertained a steady stream of visiting geologists and scientists from around the world.

A tireless lecturer and prolific scholar, Tozer travelled the world to explain his classification of Triassic ammonoids and their relation to other creatures of that period. His research culminated in two seminal publications: A Standard for Triassic Time in 1967 and The Trias and Its Ammonoids: The Evolution of a Time Scale in 1984.

"He was well recognized globally as the world's principle authority on both Triassic biostratigraphy and Triassic ammonite taxonomy," said Walter Nassichuk, a colleague for 50 years who travelled with Tozer. "Wherever we went together ... he was sought out by scientists who engaged him in discussions, which Tim participated in happily for hours on end."

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Tozer was the recipient of many prestigious awards, but he always seemed happiest in the camaraderie of the field, where he was known as a generous and enthusiastic supporter of younger colleagues. Mike Orchard was one of these young men at the survey.

"I was recently off the boat, a post-doc with the GSC with a background in Paleozoic conodonts (early eel-like creatures.) Tozer struck me as down-to-earth, open, honest, and generous," he said.

In 1995, the year of his retirement, Tozer made one last pilgrimage to the Arctic with Orchard and a group of young assistants. Although he was unable to traverse the rocky terrain, Orchard said he was happy enough to hear about his colleagues' adventures and enjoyed his role of senior Arctic explorer. After the day's work, Tozer delighted in telling stories about the early days of exploration, and his enthusiasm for the work was undiminished.

Tozer was predeceased by Ruth in 2010. He leaves children, Paul and Sally.

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