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Like Sir William Logan before him, James Merritt Harrison was the right man in the right place at the right time. During his 17-year tenure with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), the scientific organization enjoyed one of the most successful periods of its venerable history. When he became Director in 1956, the GSC was ready for a major, post-war expansion and elevation of its mapping and research facilities. Owing to strong demand for its services, the GSC more than doubled its staff, greatly increased its budget, moved to new headquarters in 1959 and decentralized to new divisions across the country. A variety of new challenges were met, including mapping the Canadian Arctic, studying the huge continental shelves and slopes, and increasing research and applications in the newly developing fields of geochemistry and geophysics, to name but a few. These and other government programs, developed under his guidance, helped make Canada a world leader in mineral exploration and resource development.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Harrison obtained his B.Sc. degree at the University of Manitoba in 1935. After transferring to Queen’s University, he earned his M.A. in 1941 and Ph.D. in 1943. His early field work for the GSC produced authoritative reports on the mineral-bearing regions of the Canadian Shield and provided him with knowledge and experience that would stand him in good stead as he rose through the ranks to become Director General. Under his extraordinary leadership and direction, the GSC grew in stature, accomplishment and recognition to become one of the finest in the world. Harrison recognized the importance of the GSC to natural resource development and successfully gained the support and trust of industry through the use of advisory committees and his extensive range of personal contacts. His top priority was service to the prospecting community. He directed, guided and encouraged the use of new technology and geological concepts that would yield benefits to prospecting. Some examples are the commissioning of airborne magnetic and radiometric surveys and ground geochemical surveys. Later, as a senior officer with the federal government department that is now Natural Resources Canada, he became a respected spokesman on mineral industry issues.
In 1973, Harrison joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris as Assistant Director for Science and Technology, in which capacity he was responsible for teaching programs, mainly in developing countries. He returned to Canada in 1976 to spend his remaining years as a general consultant—work that took him to more than 20 countries. He published 65 scientific and technical papers and was awarded many honours during his career.