Do You Recognize this Woman?

Almost a century ago, a student’s candid photography captured life at a nascent UBC. But many of George Van Wilby’s subjects remain unidentified.

Here are some samples of George Van Wilby’s photography. The entire collection can be viewed at University Archives. If you are able to identify the unnamed subjects, please contact Erwin Wodarczak ( at University Archives.

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George Van Wilby, known to his friends as Van, started his studies at UBC in September 1917. He completed his BA (Zoology) in 1921 and an MA in 1924; his graduate thesis was on the life history of the ling cod. During his time at UBC’s original campus on the Fairview slopes, Wilby became a popular member of the student body. His entry in the 1921 Annual reads:

If you wish to get acquainted with, or find out about, anybody, get pictures of them, or snapshots of a college group or event, consult the genial Van – he knows them all – (and if it’s a girl, you can get the address, too). He is enthusiastic about everything from Spanish to entomology, from dances to girls’ basketball games, from native sons to Victoria daughters….

A bad leg prevented him from making a mark in athletics, but Wilby became a fixture around Fairview in other ways. He played viola in the orchestra for the Players’ Club performances of Alice Sit-by-the-Fire (1918) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1919). His entry in the 1920 Annual noted his “pet aversion, English Lit.” Meanwhile, The Ubyssey (6 February 1919) documented his quick wit:

Dr. Clark :      “Wilby, will you translate, ‘This room is twenty feet high.’”
Wilby :             “Cette chambre a –“
Dr. Clark :      “But ‘chambre’ means a sleeping-room.”
Wilby :             “Well…” (Interrupted by rude laughter from the class.)

Perhaps most importantly, Wilby became well-known for documenting campus life through his photographs. A number of his shots were used to illustrate the 1920 and 1921 editions of the Annual. Over the years, a small selection found their way into the University Archives historical photograph collection, and were included in the Archives photo database. Several years ago, another 370 of Wilby’s original negatives were found in the Archives among Alumni Association historical materials collected by researcher Frances Tucker – these were also scanned and made available to researchers online.

Many of Wilby’s images are candid shots of students and faculty going about their daily business: walking to class, smoking or eating lunch. Others are obviously posed, including almost 100 images of people mugging for the camera. Many pictures show buildings and grounds of the Fairview campus, while others offer unique views of the Point Grey campus before its completion. Finally, many pictures document student activities, events and outings: rugby games, the annual grad picnic at the Wigwam Inn on Indian Arm, the Arts ’20 Relay and Congregation, to name a few.

Most of the individuals shown in the images remain unidentified. Exceptions are well-known campus personalities of that time such as Art Lord (AMS President, rugby star), Garnett Sedgewick (English professor, rugby fan). Van Wilby himself also found his way to the other side of the lens – obviously the chronicler of life at UBC Fairview was sometimes able to cajole a classmate into taking his picture for a change.

Before returning to UBC to complete his master’s degree, Wilby worked as a teacher in Rossland, BC. He was later a zoology instructor and teaching assistant at UBC, taught zoology at the North Dakota Agricultural College and undertook post-graduate work in biology at the University of Toronto.

In 1946 he co-wrote Fishes of the Pacific Coast of Canada with UBC zoology professor W.A. Clemens. “It will undoubtedly become a standard text in its field,” remarked UBC President N.A.M. MacKenzie to The Ubyssey upon its publication. Indeed, it served as a required zoology textbook from 1947 to 1954.

Van Wilby also remained connected to his alma mater for many years after leaving UBC. While living in Toronto he served on the social committee of the local branch of the UBC Alumni Association. He also compiled the 1925 Alumni Directory. Through the 1930s and 40s Wilby also generously donated a number of biological specimens to the Department of Zoology.

As an unofficial chronicle of the early years of the University, George Van Wilby’s photographs are a valuable source of information. They are a unique historical record, both of the built environment of UBC’s first home at Fairview and of student life during that period.

Unfortunately, as noted above, many of the people and events depicted in the images remain unidentified. Readers who can provide information about any of the people, places and events depicted in the photographs should contact Erwin Wodarczak ( at University Archives.