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Sunday, September 26, 2021

‘The giant among giraffes’: The legacy of Canadian biologist Anne Innis Dagg

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TORONTO —
It’s somewhat shocking that most Canadians have never heard of giraffe expert and Canadian science pioneer Anne Innis Dagg. After all, almost everyone knows the story of Jane Goodall, the British woman who, in her 20s, bravely travelled alone to Africa to observe animal behaviour in the wild. But Anne did that in her 20s, too, before Goodall.

In fact, Anne was the first Western scientist to travel to Africa to study the behaviour of any animal in the wild. And yet she’s virtually unknown – even among biologists in Canada. And I should know.

Despite three degrees in biology, two from Canadian universities, I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t known anything about Anne or her work until I saw a film about her life this year. That film, “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” has finally brought Anne some long-overdue recognition. It’s also forced several Canadian universities to confront a long history of sexual discrimination – a shameful trend that, although changing, still hurts female scientists today.

I met Anne Innis Dagg, for our W5 interview, at the Toronto zoo. It seemed a fitting place since a zoo is where it all started for Anne. As a three-year-old girl, that’s where she saw her first giraffe.

“It was very tall and I was very small. And I remember thinking, ‘This is beautiful. I think this is magnificent.’ And it went on from there.”

Anne remained passionate about these unique giants throughout her childhood. She then got an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Toronto. After she graduated, she set out to finally learn about them first-hand. But at that time, women weren’t expected to be doing field biology. So she concealed her gender while making arrangements to visit South Africa. Half way into her 60-day voyage there by sea, her secret got out, and she was almost forced to cancel altogether. But somehow Anne persisted. She completed the voyage, got to South Africa, made her observations on the behaviour, diet, and locomotion of giraffes, then brought home her notes so she could write them up.

Although Anne overcame sexual discrimination on her voyage to South Africa, she was ultimately unable to do so upon returning back home. She wrote scientific papers and books, defended her PhD, and even got a tenure-track job at the University of Guelph. But despite a stellar record of science and teaching, Anne was denied tenure there in 1972 – a decision Anne maintains was due only to her gender. It was a reflection of the era – a time when only 13 per cent of tenure-track jobs in Canada were held by women. Out of a job, Anne took teaching contracts at two other universities, but she still couldn’t get a permanent position.

“I taught at three universities and at each one, they thought of a reason. No matter what I did, how many books I wrote, I had 60 articles written. And a guy that had written, I think 15… got the job. It was just… it was sickening.”

Now in her 80s, Anne’s legacy is both an inspiring testament to a person’s passion for biology, and a warning about the damage that sexual inequality can have.

And that inequality persists at Canadian universities today. In 2016, for example, female professors were paid an average of 11 per cent less than their male colleagues. Part of this results from what Anne experienced – that a few decades ago, women were simply excluded from academic jobs, making more of the “older” professors, who also tend to be better paid, men. But even compared to men at the same stage of their career, women are getting the short end of the stick. An analysis by University of Toronto professor Megan Fredrickson revealed that a female professor bringing in a grant of equal size to that of her male colleague, should on average expect to earn almost $10,000 less per year.

Since the film was released, Anne’s been recognized with awards, a scholarship in her name, and even an appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada. The University of Guelph has also formally apologized for the way she was treated by that institution. Anne appreciates all of it, but says it all comes a little too late.

“I guess I should be thrilled, but it doesn’t really mean anything when I lost years and years and years of having a proper life like I should have had.”

In a 1675 letter, Sir Isaac Newton famously wrote: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What better metaphor could there be for a giraffe researcher? As a scientist, Anne built the fundamentals upon which research and conservation efforts continue today. But now that her story is being told, perhaps Canadians will see our own landscape a little better, too. After all, there is still work to be done.

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