Marcelle Gauvreau (1907–1968)

Marcelle Gauvreau collecting plants in 1941 © Jardin botanique de Montréal

For the week of February 28, 2022

On February 28, 1907, botanist Marcelle Gauvreau was born in Rimouski, Quebec. Raised in Montréal, Quebec, as one of ten children born to Augustine L’Arrivée and Joseph Gauvreau, Marcelle Gauvreau dedicated her life to studying and educating children in the natural sciences.

Marcelle Gauvreau became fascinated with the natural world during visits to her family’s country house in Rivière-Beaudette, where she had spent time as a child, recovering from polio (1917) and tuberculosis (1924). With encouragement from her father, she entered a contest organized by Le Devoir in 1930 to create a herbarium (a collection of preserved plants). Brother Marie-Victorin, then director of the laboratoire de botanique de l’Université de Montréal (renamed the Institut botanique in 1931 and the Institut de recherche en biologie végétale or Plant Biology Research Institute in 1990), was so impressed that he offered her a spot in his team.

After obtaining diplomas in general and systematic botany (1932) and her licentiate in natural sciences (1933), she began her masters research on marine algae in the St. Lawrence. In 1939, she became the first French-Canadian woman to obtain a Master of Science. She was also one of the first women to present the results of her research to l’Association canadienne-francaise pour l’avancement des sciences. The data she amassed during her master’s research, published as Les algues marines du Quebec (1956) by the Jardin botanique de Montréal, provided the basis for contemporary knowledge about algae in Canada.

Gauvreau also wrote two science books for children, Plantes curieuses de mon pays (1943) and, in collaboration with Hélène Gagné-Dufresne, Plantes vagabondes (1957). In 1935, she founded the École de l’Éveil (1935) in a room at the Hotel Pennsylvania, on rue Saint-Denis. In 1939, the school moved to the Jardin botanique de Montréal, which showcased a wide variety of plants from around the world, and advanced scientific understanding by teaching botany and horticulture. The École de l’Éveil remained at this location until 1957, when disputes with the city over tuition and the acceptance of students from outside Montréal forced its relocation to the Institut Cardinal-Léger.

The mission of the École de l’Éveil was to introduce natural history to Montréal students, aged 4 to 7. For one hour a week, Gauvreau organized fun and instructive activities for around 20 students, including nature walks and herbarium making, and taught them to recognize different plants, animals, and rocks. She was the director and only permanent teacher until she hired two assistants in 1955, allowing her to add classes and take on more students. Gauvreau eventually established other branches of the École de l’Éveil throughout the Montréal region. By the time of her death in 1968, she had helped introduce more than 3,500 children to the natural sciences.

The Montréal Botanical Garden is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings, and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Related links

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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