Joseph Burr Tyrrell was born in Weston, Ontario, in 1858. He was the third child of William and Elizabeth Tyrrell. He attended the Weston Grammar School and then Upper Canada College, where he graduated in 1876. He then attended the University of Toronto, where he received his B.A. in 1880 with first class honours. He spent a short time articling in a law firm, after which he was appointed as a clerk on the staff of the Geological Survey in Ottawa. His first job with the Survey was to help the Survey's paleontologist, J.F. Whiteaves, to unpack and organize the huge collection of rocks and fossils they had gathered.

In 1883 he accompanied G.M. Dawson as an assistant on an expedition through the Albertan foothills and into the Rocky Mountains. In 1884, he led an expedition surveying the Red Deer River valley and adjacent areas. On this expedition, he made the Red Deer River area's first discovery of dinosaur remains, the head of the previously unknown species Albertosaurus sarcophagus. He also made the first report of coal seams at the site where Drumheller would later be built. In the summers of 1885 and 1886 he completed his survey of the territory between the Bow River and the North Saskatchewan River.

From 1887 to 1891 he led expeditions to survey northwestern Manitoba, Lake Manitoba, and Lake Winnipeg, as well as the rivers draining into those lakes.

In 1892 he was assigned to survey northern Saskatchewan, between the Churchill River and Lake Athabasca. Chipewyan guides told him about a river route across the Barren Lands leading to Hudson Bay. He obtained permission to lead an expedition there, and in May 1893 he set out with his brother James and six canoe men. After a difficult journey, they headed for Churchill, but ice forced them ashore 20 miles away. Two men went ahead and brought a rescue party, and they waited for inland rivers to freeze in Churchill. They then set out for Winnipeg, reaching it on January 2, 1894. James Tyrrell wrote a book (Across the sub-arctics of Canada, 1897).

In 1894 J.B. Tyrrel married Mary Edith Carey and they lived in Ottawa until 1906, when they moved to Toronto. They had three children: Mary (1896), George (1900), and Thomas (1906).

In the spring of 1894 he returned to the Barren Lands with a Scottish sportsman named Robert Monro Ferguson and Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General's aide de camp. With several hired canoe men and the help two Inuit guides, he reached Churchill safely.

He spent 1895 to 1897 surveying northern Manitoba and Sakatchewan, and in 1898 he went to survey the southwestern Yukon. When he returned to Ottawa, he found that he had not received a promised promotion, and he resigned in December 1898. In 1899, he returned to the Klondike to set up business as a mining consultant and surveyor. He was based in Dawson City from 1899 to 1905, where he investigated properties for companies and individuals throughout the Klondike and overseeing development on his own mining claims on Hunker Creek, Bonanza Creek, and Sourdough Hill. His family stayed in Ottawa, and he returned during the winter most years. A plaque in Dawson City commemorates his role in developing the area.

When he sold his Klondike interests and moved with his family to Toronto in 1906, he was hired as a consultant by Mackenzie, Mann and Company of Toronto, but went into business on his own shortly after as an engineer and consultant. He was the Canadian agent of the Anglo-French Exploration Company from 1910 to 1926, investigating their properties in northern Ontario and northwestern Canada on their behalf. He was appointed in 1912 by the Ontario government to lead an expedition to select the site where Port Nelson would be constructed. He was appointed in 1920 to the Board of Directors of Harry Oakes's Lake Shore Gold Mine, having persuaded the Anglo-French Exploration Company to invest in it, but was forced to resign when they sold their shares in 1922. He became Vice-President and Managing Director of Kirkland Lake Gold Mine in 1924 and of Beaver Consolidated Mining Company in 1926. He was president of the Kirkland Lake mine from 1931 to 1955 and of the Northern Canadian Mining Corporation from 1931 to 1937.

Tyrrell received honourary doctorates from the University of Toronto and Queen's University, the Back Award from the Royal Geographical Society, the Murchison Medal and Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, the Daly Medal from the American Geographical Society, the Flavelle Medal from the Royal Society of Canada, and the Professional Engineer's Medal from the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario.

He died at the age of 98 in 1957 as a widower. His extensive library went to the University of Toronto's library. The Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta, was named after him posthumously to honour his dinosaur discovery in 1884.

info from the University of Toronto Libraries

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