Dr. Jennifer Shay, O.C.,Ph.D.

(1930-2018)

Jennifer Shay (nee Walker) blazed a bright trail across botany, landscape architecture, the sciences and humanities. In her no-nonsense manner, she strove tirelessly to protect the environment, becoming a true force of nature.

Born at Hull, England, in 1930, her early outdoor experiences cemented her life-long interest in nature. Despite having been discouraged from pursuing a university career, she completed an undergraduate biology degree at the University of London in 1952. As the sole woman on staff, she spent six years teaching at Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre in Suffolk, an experience that convinced her of the value of fieldwork in training biologists.

She immigrated to Canada in 1957 to work as a research assistant in botany at the University of Manitoba. While bird watching at the Delta Waterfowl Research Station, Shay learned about the catastrophic flooding of the mid-1950s. This inspired her to study the recovery of plants following the flood for her master’s and PhD degrees in botany. Thus began a 35-year career at the U of M, where – again – she was the first, and for a long time the only, woman in the botany department (now part of biological sciences).

When the estate of Donald Bain, on the southern shores of Lake Manitoba, was offered to the university, Jennifer eagerly endorsed the idea. Thus, in 1966, she became the founding director of the University Field Station (later renamed Delta Marsh Field Station), serving for 20 years and transforming the station into a leading research and training centre, teaching fieldwork techniques to generations of students.

A respected ecologist, environmentalist and interdisciplinary scientist, Shay’s trademarks were patience, firmness and grace, tempered by an impish sense of humor. Her research ranged from contemporary marshes, prairies and forests to ancient settlements on Crete – a project shared with her archeologist husband, Tom Shay.

Shay served as president of the Manitoba Naturalists Society and was a founding member of both the Manitoba Museum and Winnipeg’s Living Prairie Museum. She also sat on the board of the Fort Whyte Nature Centre. Shay’s many other national presidencies and advisory-board positions ranged from the Canadian Botanical Association and the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council to the Organization of Biological Field Stations and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

In recognition of her pioneering role in environmental advocacy and outdoor education, and especially for founding the Delta Marsh Field Station, Jennifer was inducted into the Order of Canada (1988) and became an Officer in 2001. She received the Centennial Medal (1970), Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012). The Manitoba Historical Society designated her as a “Memorable Manitoban.”

She retired to Yorkshire, England, with Tom in 2001. Jennifer died there on May 7, 2018. A collection of her papers is held at the University of Manitoba.

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