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entomologist and arts advocate Joan Frances Bronskill

by Joan Rickards | January 9, 2003

Joan Frances Bronskill was one of Canada’s best-loved and most admired entomologists. She was known to colleagues around the world for 25 years of achievements in many areas of insect research.1

The work of a research scientist can be truly baffling to the rest of us. It took no small effort on the part of Joan’s friends and relatives to understand that one of her primary areas of research was the study of “good parasites.” In the 1950s, this seemed a contradiction in terms. So it was necessary to learn that a good parasite is indeed a beneficial insect that prefers to feed on destructive insects or to lay its eggs on their larvae as food for its own developing offspring. Consequently, if bred and released in sufficient numbers, the good parasites (in entomological terms: parasitoids) can help to control the pests that devastate the forests and fruits of the land.2

Joan was proficient in all the specialties required for her research into the biological control of destructive insects. In addition, she brought an engaging enthusiasm to her work and a willingness to help colleagues and students.

Though born in the nation’s capital, Joan was raised in the Ottawa Valley, where her father worked for the lumber mill in the village of Braeside, not far from Arnprior. She arrived in 1948 Belleville with a brand new BA from Queen’s University, eager to take up her first professional position at the department of agriculture’s Entomological Research Institute, affectionately known locally as “the Bughouse.” Her early interest in biology had evolved at Queen’s into a fascination with insects. Since she was already a skilled photographer, her first job title, histological and photographic research technician, aptly captured both interests. Histology, the study of organic tissues, meant that her major tool was the high-powered microscope and she reportedly revelled in its ability to reveal the wonders of construction and development of the tiny creatures she studied.

After two years as a technician, Joan continued her studies at Cornell University, graduating in 1955 with a PhD in entomology, majoring in histology and embryology. She returned to the Belleville Institute ready to delve into research. Histology was a rare specialty at the time. In fact, for a few years, she was one of only three in the world and certainly Canada’s first.

Such painstaking work demanded a thorough understanding of the embryology of the insects under investigation. An insect embryologist charts development from egg to adult, noting the environmental factors that influence growth. In 1960, Joan contributed to the body of research by making a time lapse 16 mm film of the developing egg of a parasitic wasp, showing exactly what happened within the egg from the time of oviposition until emergence of the insect larva. The findings were important and to capture them on film was an impressive innovation. She presented this work at an international congress in Vienna the same year and received congratulations in several languages. At the time of her death in 1978, her film was still being used in some universities as a teaching tool for entomology students.

Joan earned distinction in her profession. She was author or co-author of 16 research papers which were published in English and foreign-language journals. She was invited to present these papers at national and international symposia. A detailed biographical description of her was included in an American scientific publication entitled Two Thousand Women of Achievement – 1970. She was a member of a number of scientific associations including the Entomology Societies of America, Canada and Ontario, and was a director of the latter in 1959–1960 and again in 1974–1975. She was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1972, as the Belleville Institute prepared to close, Joan moved to Ottawa to take a position in another research specialty. She joined the electron microscope section of the Cell Biology Research Institute of Agriculture Canada. Friends remember that the diminutive Joan was at first somewhat daunted at having to work with the “mammoth” electron microscope. However, her director soon commented on the rapidity with which she mastered new and difficult techniques, and on the excellent research services she and her staff provided to field stations and research programs across Canada.3

Despite lifelong physical and physiological limitations, Joan lived an enormously active life of achievement and enjoyment. Never coddled in childhood, she was expected to attend school regularly and to do well. A friend recalls that Joan’s mother took her to school through deep snow with Joan supported on her mother’s skis. And during the no doubt difficult primary school years, older brother Arnold stood up for her in the school playground. As she matured, she learned to manage her physical problems and to rise above the term “dwarf” matter-of-factly and with great good humour. No one who knew her well ever thought of using it. She was just a capable and wonderfully interesting lady who happened to be short!4

Joan’s Belleville friends remember with affection and admiration her impatient resolve to own her own car and learn to drive. She carefully worked out the adaptations she would need to see over the dashboard and reach the pedals. After shopping exhaustively, she found a Vauxhall that could be fitted with the necessary bolster and extensions. Obtaining the coveted license at last, her gleeful triumph knew no bounds. What freedom, what independence!

The same friends were accordingly not surprised to find Joan sailing her own boat on the bay and becoming one of the first, perhaps the very first, single female member of the Bay of Quinte Yacht Club.

It has been 30 years since Belleville’s “Bughouse” closed and the entomologists departed. Many of their names are now forgotten, but Joan is still fondly remembered for community achievements having nothing to do with insects or science. A friend and colleague, Dr. Thelma Finlayson, professor emeritus, Simon Fraser University, said that Joan “was an artist at heart. I think if life had been easier for her, she would have ended up in something quite different: dance, painting, dress design, music.”

Certainly, Joan was enchanted with the fairytale world of ballet. If movie videos had been available, her first purchases would have been, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, which she must have seen a dozen times. In any case, as soon as she returned from Cornell, she found an outlet as one of the founders of the Belleville Branch of the National Ballet Guild, formed in 1956. She served as its president in 1962-1963. It was the early members of the executive who, with guidance from the National Ballet directors, helped to found the Quinte Ballet School, recognized across Canada for its professional calibre training.5

Joan was active in the work of the Community Concert Association and was a charter member of the Quinte Arts Council. For at least 12 years, she was also a member of the Belleville Theatre Guild, sometimes helping out backstage with sets and costumes, as well as taking on administrative positions. She represented the Guild in the Eastern Ontario Drama League, and from 1966 to 1971 she served as honourary governor from the region to the Dominion Drama Festival.

Joan left for her new position in Ottawa in June, 1972, after being presented with a plaque of long service by the Belleville Theatre Guild. In December of that year, she made a brief return from Ottawa to receive the annual Belleville Cultural Achievement Award in a ceremony at the Pinnacle Playhouse. On the stage that Joan helped to develop, Mayor Russell Scott praised her continuous dedication to the cultural life of the community since her arrival in 1948.6

Mention must be made of Joan’s world travel. In conjunction with attendance at international meetings, she toured field stations and took vacation time to make the most of the sometimes exotic locations in which she found herself. Her photographs were legendary. Friends remember faience-tiled mosques and minarets in Tashkent, rows of curly toed slippers in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, ladies wearing baggy pantaloons and yashmaks in 1968 Kosovo, kangaroos and kookaburras, alligators and egrets – in fact, all the wonders she encountered. But travel was not always easy. Joan contracted respiratory problems frequently and, since nature had provided her with only one lung, immediate intervention was essential. She always carried medications and fought infections matter-of-factly and alone, sometimes in very distant countries.

Never a mother, often a godmother, Joan delighted in children. In her first years in Belleville, she took on the role of cub scout leader. She was an honourary “auntie” to scores of Belleville and Ottawa children. She had six beloved nieces and nephews who remember her with great affection. Now adults, they all speak of her gentleness, her ear and genuine interest in what they were doing. They tell how she actively encouraged talent and never forgot a birthday.

A cousin with a passion for the stage remembers that Joan persuaded his parents to allow him to pursue a theatrical career, in which he is successfully engaged. A niece associates her with beautiful colours, fabrics and the rosé wine that Joan contributed to family holiday dinners. A Belleville teacher remembers her own youthful delight at receiving Joan’s tiny, elegant, high-heeled shoes for playing dress-up. A Toronto businessman who was a child when she knew him said, “She was kind of like a nice aunt but very moral – and tough! You couldn’t get away with anything.” But above all, these adults speak of the opportunities she created for them to learn – about insects, about theatre, about sailing, about perseverance and about excellence.7

In failing health during the last two years of her life, Joan continued to work from her home, sometimes with oxygen, or from a hospital bed.8 She died at age 53 after a courageous life filled with achievements, loving kindness, and quiet resolve to make the most of all her moments. Her final scientific paper was published after her death in 1978.9

footnotes

1 — Joan Frances Bronskill, obituary Canadian Entomologist | May 1978
— Farewell Salute to Joan Bronskill, by ANN NICHOLSON CAHOON, unknown Queen’s publication
— Joan Francis Bronskill, obituary, The Intelligencer | Apr 8, 1978

2 Thelma Finlayson, mail to the author | March 2001

3 Joan Frances Bronskill: Personnel Record, Agriculture Canada

4 — Lois Wishart, personal interview | March 1, 2001
— Nancy Bronskill Miller (niece), telephone interview | February 17, 2001
— Nancy Bronskill Miller, email to the author | March 13, 2001

5 — Helen Kelly, personal interview | June 7, 2001
— Anne Holley-Hime, personal interview, June 14, 2001
See also endnote #1

6 — Joan Francis Bronskill, obituary, Intelligencer | April 8, 1978
— Untitled article, Intelligencer | June 2, 1972

7 — Cynthia Bennett, telephone interview | February 18, 2001
— Jim Bronskill, telephone interview | March 24, 2001
— Reg Bronskill, telephone interview | April 7, 2001
— Nancy Bronskill Miller, telephone interview | February 13, 2001
— Nancy Bronskill Miller, email | March 13, 2001
— Betty Kostashuk, telephone interview | April 14, 2001
— Timothy Rickards, telephone interview | March 18, 2001

8 Joan Bronskill, letter to the author | May 2, 1976

9 The Micropylar Area of Some Hymenopterous Eggs, by J.F. BRONSKILL and E.H. SALKELD, The Canadian Entomologist | June 1978

primary sources
  • Bennett, Cynthia (godchild), telephone interview | February 18, 2001
  • Bronskill, Jim (nephew), telephone interview | March 24, 2001
  • Bronskill, Joan Frances, letter to the author | May 2, 1976
  • Bronskill, Joan Frances, personnel record, Agriculture Canada
  • Bronskill, Joan Frances and E.H. Salkeld, The Myropylar Area of Some Hymenopterous Eggs, Canadian Entomologist | June 1978
  • Bronskill, Reg. (cousin), telephone interview | April 7, 2001
  • Cahoon, Ann Nicholson, Farewell Salute to Joan Bronskill, unknown Queen’s publication
  • Finlayson, Thelma (professor emeritus, Simon Fraser University, email to the author | March 2001
  • Holley-Hime, Anne, personal interview | June 14, 2001
  • Kelly, Helen (Belleville chair, National Ballet Guild), personal interview | June 7, 2001
  • Kostashuk, Betty, telephone interview | April 14, 2001
  • Miller, Nancy Bronskill (niece), email to the author | March 13, 2001
  • Miller, Nancy Bronskill (niece), telephone interview | February 13, 17, 2001
  • Obituary: Joan Frances Bronskill, Canadian Entomologist | May 1978
  • Obituary: Joan Francis Bronskill, Intelligencer | April 8, 1978
  • Rickards, Timothy, telephone interview | March 18, 2001
  • Wishart, Lois, personal interview | March 1, 2001

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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