Dr. Wilma Ethel Elias (1925-2018) was the first woman to obtain a PhD from the University of British Columbia. Thanks to a thoughtful and generous bequest from this distinguished alumna, the Dr. Wilma Ethel Elias Scholarship in Chemistry endowment has been established to provide scholarships for women studying chemistry at the graduate level.
Wilma Elias was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1925. Her mother had been a school teacher, which may have perhaps inspired an interest in teaching and learning. Following the completion of her schooling in Calgary, Wilma moved from her home province to neighbouring Saskatchewan to pursue her university education. She completed a BA in chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan in 1947 and stayed on to pursue an MA – studying organic chemistry under renowned carbohydrate chemist Dr. Raymond Lemieux. Her research focused on disubstituted glycolic aldehydes.
Wilma continued studying carbohydrates and natural products for her PhD at UBC in the lab of Dr. Lloyd Douglas Hayward in the Department of Chemistry. A respected educator, Dr. Hayward was known for his work popularizing chemistry with elementary students. Wilma completed her thesis, entitled The Nitration and Fractionation of Whole Wood, and graduated from UBC in 1956.
An accomplished student, she received several awards at UBC, including the British Columbia Sugar Refining Company Limited Scholarship, the Vancouver B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation Scholarship, and the Powell River Company Limited Scholarship for research in wood chemistry.
Dr. Elias was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Victoria, where she taught and conducted research until her retirement in 1985. She had moved to Vancouver Island in 1958 to take a position at Victoria College, and in 1963 it merged with the Provincial Normal School to form the University of Victoria.
She spent an active retirement travelling the globe, observing and meticulously recording her journeys to the delight of her many friends and family. She was an avid gardener and active member of her Oak Bay community. Always keen for a challenge, she began teaching herself to play piano at the age of 90.
Dr. Wilma Elias passed away in 2018. She is remembered as an interesting – and interested – woman: energetic and independent of spirit, with a strong work ethic and sense of curiosity.