Sherry Olson

Prof. Sherry OlsonLife Histories in Urban Environments

Professor Emerita in the Department of Geography

Office: Burnside Hall 611
Tel.: (514) 398-4956
Fax.: (514) 398-7437

sherry.olson [at] (E-mail)

Academic background

  • PhD Geography, The Johns Hopkins University (1965)

  • Assistant Professor, Geography & Environmental Engineering, Johns Hopkins (1965-1972)

  • At McGill University, Department of Geography since 1973

  • Membre du CIÉQ Centre interuniversitaire d’études québécoises, Université Laval et UQTR


Research interests

As a historical geographer, I work at the intersection of economy, culture and environment. Early projects dealt with forest history – pricing water, railways as tree-planters, and traditions of response to risk. More recent projects focus entirely on cities: the creation of environments that advantage some citizens over others.  In terms of method, my work addresses two challenges:

The first is the problem of connecting “micro” with “macro” analysis.  For a miniaturized model of the population of Montreal, we reconstituted families from parish records of births, deaths and marriages, to explore survival rates, fertility, and migrant behaviour. The sample, amounting to a thousand married couples, allowed comparison of three cultural communities — French Canadian, Anglo-Protestant, and Irish Catholic.

The second challenge – to visualize our living-spaces as “four-dimensional” – is best shown in the Montreal HGIS of the MAP team: an array of databases integrated as geographic information systems. For putting homes, workplaces, and institutions on the map,  our layers are richest for 1825, 1846, 1880, and 1901. Data are available to all scholars for exchange, enrichment, and exploration, in searchable formats.


Current projects

  • “MAP - Montréal l’avenir du passé”: a long-lived but informal research network (‎ )
  • The city of wood: Montreal before 1852, in collaboration with François Dufaux
  • An Irish innkeeper in 1840s Montreal: his friends, his bookshelves, his investments



Olson, Sherry, “Setting the census household into its urban context: Visualizations from 19th-century Montreal”, Demographic Research 36-46: 1399-1434, published 28 April 2017 DOI: 10.4054/DemRes.2017.36.46

Olson, Sherry, “The urban horse and the shaping of Montreal, 1840-1914”, pp. 57-86 in Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada, edited by C. Sethna, D. Ingram, and J. Dean, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 2017. Open access pdf download:

Olson, Sherry, and Peter Holland. “Commentaires des jeunes sur une économie en croissance : échos de la Nouvelle-Zélande de 1884 à 1914”, Enfances, Familles, Générations. Accessible also in English: "Youthful commentary on a growth economy: soundings from New Zealand 1884-1914".

Holland, Peter, and Sherry Olson. “Agents of landscape change in southern New Zealand, 1896-1920”, 2017) to New Zealand Geographer (published on line October 2017) doi: 10.1111/nzg.12174

Holland, Peter, and Sherry Olson, “Ledgers and landscapes: Indicators of rural landscape change in southern New Zealand, 1878-1919”, New Zealand Geographer 73-1 (April 2017): 45-56   DOI: 10.1111/nzg.12145

Olson, Sherry. “La présence irlandaise: un essai cartographique”, in Dire la diversité du Québec: Réflexions sur fond muséal, eds. Mélanie Lanouette and Étienne Rivard, 2017, pp. 93-104. Série Cahiers du CIÉQ. Centre interuniversitaire d’études québécoises 

Olson, Sherry. “Ladders of mobility in a fast-growing industrial city”, pp. 189-210 (chapter 9) in Lives in Transition: Longitudinal Analysis from Historical Sources, edited by Peter Baskerville and Kris Inwood, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015

Dufaux, François, and Sherry Olson, “Rebuilding a neighbourhood of Montreal”, pp. 79–88 (chapter 8) in Historical GIS Research in Canada, edited by Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, University of Calgary Press, 2014. Open access pdf download

Olson, Sherry, and Patricia A. Thornton 2011. Peopling the North American City: Montreal 1840-1900. Montreal: MQUP. Honorable mention, Sir John A. MacDonald Award of the Canadian Historical Association 2011

Schwartzman, Kevin, Paul Brassard, Jason Gilliland, François Dufaux, Kevin Henry, David Buckeridge, and Sherry Olson 2012. “Geomatics as a tool for bridging the cultures of research”, pp. 75-100 in The Added value of scientific networking: Perspectives from the GEOIDE Network Members 1998-2012, N. Chrisman and M. Wachowicz eds., Quebec, 2012

Olson, Sherry, Kevin Henry, Michele Jomphe, Paul Brassard and Kevin Schwartzman 2010 “Tracking tuberculosis in the past: the use of genealogical evidence”.  Journal of Historical Geography 36-3: 327-341

Olson, Sherry 2013. “Silver and hotcakes and beer, Irish Montreal in the 1840s”, Canadian Ethnic Studies

Olson, Sherry 2013 “St Patrick’s and the Irish Catholics”,  chapter 11, pp. 303-318 in The Sulpicians of Montreal, A History of Power and Discretion 1657-2007, edited by Dominique Deslandres, John A. Dickinson, and Ollivier Hubert (Montréal, Wilson & Lafleur). French edition 2007

Olson, Sherry 2012. “À la ville, à la scène, l’impact fondateur des immigrants français”. Édition électronique du Colloque Les immigrants français au Canada à l'époque de la Grande Migration transatlantique (1870-1914),

Olson, Sherry 2011. “City streets as environmental grid: The challenge of private uses and municipal stewardship”, pp. 148-167 In Metropolitan Natures, Environmental Histories of Montreal, Stéphane Castonguay and Michèle Dagenais eds. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press

Gilliland, Jason A., Sherry H. Olson, and Danielle Gauvreau 2011. “Did segregation increase as the city expanded? The case of Montreal, 1881-1901”, Social Science History 35-4 (Winter): 465-503.  doi 10.1215/01455532-1381823

Thornton, Patricia, and Sherry Olson 2011. “Mortality in late nineteenth-century Montreal: geographic pathways of contagion”, Population Studies 65-2: 157-181

Gilliland, Jason A., and Sherry Olson 2010. “Residential segregation in the industrializing city: a closer look”, Urban Geography 31-1: 29-58

Gilliland, Jason A., and Sherry Olson 2010. “Residential segregation in the industrializing city: a closer look. Urban Geography 31-1: 29-58

Olson, Sherry, Kevin Henry, Michele Jomphe, Paul Brassard and Kevin Schwartzman 2010. “Tracking tuberculosis in the past: the use of genealogical evidence”,  Journal of Historical Geography 36-3: 327–341

Poutanen, Mary Anne, Sherry Olson, Raphael Fischler, and Kevin Schwartzman, 2009. “Tuberculosis in town: mobility of patients in Montreal, 1925-1950”, Social History / Histoire sociale 42, no 83 (May): 69-106

Dufaux, François, and Sherry Olson 2009. “Reconstruire Montréal, rebâtir sa fortune. Revue de Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, numéro 1, 44-57

Carter, Andrew, Alice Zwerling, Sherry Olson, Terry-Nan Tannenbaum, and Kevin Schwartzman 2009. “Tuberculosis and the city”, Health & Place 15-3 (September): 807-813

Gauvreau, Danielle, and Sherry Olson 2009. “Mobilité sociale dans une ville industrielle nord-américaine: Montréal, 1880-1900”,  ADH Annales de démographie historique 2008, numéro 1: 89-114

Gauvreau, Danielle, Patricia Thornton, and Sherry Olson 2007. “The harsh welcome of an industrial city: Immigrant women in Montreal, 1880-1900”,  Social History - Histoire Sociale. 40, no 80 (November): 345-380

Brassard, Paul, Kevin A. Henry, Kevin Schwartzman, Michele Jomphe, and Sherry Olson 2008. “Geography and genealogy of the human host harbouring a distinctive drug resistant strain of tuberculosis”, Infection, Genetics and Evolution 8: 247-257

Olson, Sherry, 2007 “Downwind, downstream, downtown: The environmental legacy in Baltimore and Montreal”, Journal of Environmental History 12-4 (October): 845-866

Olson, Sherry, 2007 “Saint-Patrick et les paroissiens irlandais”, pp. 289-304 in Les Sulpiciens de Montréal, Une histoire de pouvoir et de discrétion, 1657-2007, D. Deslandres, J.A. Dickinson, and O. Hubert, eds. (English edition 2013)

Haase, Ian, Sherry Olson, Marcel A. Behr, Ian Wanyeki, Louise Thibert, Allison Scott, Alice Zwerling, Nancy Ross, Paul Brassard, Dick Menzies, Kevin Schwartzman 2007.  “Use of geographic and genotyping tools to characterise tuberculosis transmission in Montreal”, International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease 11(6): 632-638

Henry, Kevin, and Sherry Olson, 2006 “Balises patronymniques de l'Amérique française”, pp. 251-266 in Thomas Wien, Cécile Vidal and Yves Frenette, De Québec à l'Amérique française Histoire et mémoire, Presses de l'Université Laval

Thornton, Patricia, and Sherry Olson, 2006 “The religious claim on babies in nineteenth-century Montreal”, pp. 207-237 in Religion and the Decline of Fertility in the Western World, Renzo Derosas and Frans van Poppel, eds. Dordrecht, Springer

Wanyeki, Ian, Sherry Olson, Paul Brassard, Dick Menzies, Nancy Ross, Marcel Behr, Kevin Schwartzman, 2006. “Dwellings, crowding, and tuberculosis in Montreal”, Social Science & Medicine 63-2 (July): 501-511

Gauvreau, Danielle, Sherry Olson, and Patricia Thornton 2005 “Three demographic regimes in an industrializing city”, Poster, International Union for the Study of Population
View poster here

Olson, Sherry 2004. “Thinking on time, toward a four-dimensional geography”, pp. 383-400 in Glimpses of a Gaian World, Essays in Honour of Peter Holland. G. Kearsley and B. Fitzharris eds. Dunedin, University of Otago School of Social Science

Sweeny, Robert C.H., and Sherry Olson 2003. “MAP: Montréal l’avenir du passé, Sharing geodatabases yesterday, today and tomorrow”, Geomatica 57-2: 145-154

Gilliland, Jason, and Sherry Olson 2003. “Montréal l’avenir du passé”, Géoinfo, Le bulletin du Plan géomatique du gouvernement du Québec, janvier-février, pp. 1-3 (
Thornton, Patricia, and Sherry Olson, 2002.  “The challenge of the Irish Catholic community in nineteenth-century Montreal”, Histoire sociale / Social History, 35, no 70: 333-362

Olson, Sherry, 2004. “Ethnic partition of the work force in 1840s Montreal”, Labour / Le Travail 53 (Spring): 157-200

Olson, Sherry, and Patricia Thornton 2003. “Mobilité et structure démographique dans la région montréalaise, 1840 à 1900”, pp. 341-354 in C. Dessureault, J. Dickenson et J. Goy eds., Famille et marché XVIe-XXe siècles (Montréal, Septentrion)

Olson, Sherry, et Patricia Thornton 2001. “La croissance naturelle des Montréalais au XIXe siècle”, Cahiers de démographie du Québec, 30, 2 (automne 2001) : 191-230

Thornton, Patricia, and Sherry Olson 2001. “A deadly discrimination among Montreal infants 1860-1900”, Continuity and Change 16-1: 95-135

Olson, Sherry, 2001 “Ces touchants spectacles”, pp. 232-47 dans  La Paroisse , Serge Courville et Normand Séguin, eds. (Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université Laval)

Olson, Sherry, et Jean-Claude Robert 2001. “Morphologie de la paroisse urbaine”, pp. 98-105 in La Paroisse , S. Courville et N. Séguin, eds. (Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université Laval)

Olson, Sherry 2000. “Form and energy in the urban built environment”, pp. 224-43 in Canadian Cities In Transition, T. Bunting and P. Filion eds. (Oxford University Press, 2000, 2d ed.)

Olson, Sherry 2000l “Feathering her nest in nineteenth-century Montreal”, Social History / Histoire sociale 33 (May), 65: 1-35

Olson, Sherry 1998.  “Pour se créer un avenir, Stratégies de couples montréalais aux XIXe siècle”, Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française 51-3 (hiver): 357-389

Gilliland, Jason, and Sherry Olson 1998. “Claims on housing space in nineteenth-century Montreal”, Urban History Review 26-2: 3-16

Olson, Sherry 1997. “Wind and Water, 1970-1996”, pp. 387-418 in expanded (2nd) edition of (own) Baltimore, Building an American City, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press

Thornton, Patricia, and Sherry Olson 1997. “Infant vulnerability in three cultural settings in Montreal 1880”, pp. 216-241 in Infant and Child Mortality in the Past, A. Bideau, B. Desjardins et H. Perez-Brignoli eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Olson, Sherry 1996. “Le peuplement de Montreal”, pp. 81-94 and 104-107 (plates) in Population et Territoire, series Atlas historique du Québec, dir. S. Courville, PUL

Olson, Sherry, and Patricia Thornton 1995. “Le raz de marée irlandais à Montréal”, pp. 69-80 in Y. Landry et al., Les Chemins de la migration en Belgique et au Québec XVIIe-XXe siècles. MNH

Olson, Sherry 1995. “A profusion of light in nineteenth-century Montreal”, pp. 253-262 in S. Courville and N. Séguin, eds. Espace et Culture /Space and Culture (Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université Laval)

Holland, Peter, and Sherry Olson 1995. “Maintaining the rural landscape: expectations and costs of hedging”, New Zealand Geographer 51-2: 16-24

Olson, S.H., and A.L. Kobayashi 1993. “The emerging ethncultural mosaic”, pp. 138-52 in L.S. Bourne and D.F. Ley, The Changing Social Geography of Canadian Cities. Montreal, MQUP

Olson, Sherry, et Patricia Thornton 1992. “Familles montréalaises du XIXe siècle : trois cultures, trois trajectoires”, Cahiers québécois de démographie, 21-2 (automne) : 51-75

Olson, Sherry, and David Hanna 1990 and 1993. “Social landscape of Montreal 1901”, In Historical Atlas of Canada (Presses of University of Toronto and Université de Montréal), vol. III (1990) Plate 30, and in volume II (1993) Plate 49.

Olson, Sherry 1991. “The Evolution of metropolitan form”, pp. 240-262 in Trudi Bunting and Pierre Filion eds., Canadian Cities in Transition (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1st ed.)

Olson, Sherry 1991. “Ethnic strategies in the urban economy”, Canadian Ethnic Studies 23-2: 39-64

Thornton, Patricia A., and Sherry Olson 1991. “Family contexts of fertility and infant survival in nineteenth-century Montreal”, Journal of Family History, 16-4 : 401-17

Olson, Sherry 1989. “Occupations and residential spaces in nineteenth-century Montreal”, Historical Methods 22-3 (Summer), 81-96

Olson, S.,  P. Thornton, and Quoc Thuy Thach 1989.  “Dimensions sociales de la mortalité infantile à Montréal au milieu du XIXe siècle”, Annales de Démographie historique 1988, pp. 299-325

Olson, Sherry 1989. “Paternalism and urban reform: an introduction”, Urban History Review 17-3 (February): 143-47

Holland, Peter, and Sherry Olson 1989. “Introduced versus native plants in austral forests”, Progress in Physical Geography, 13-2: 260-93

Holland, P.G., and S.H. Olson 1989. “Provenances of naturalised plants in Australasia”, Australian Geographer 20-2: 136-43

Holland, Peter, and Sherry Olson 1989. “Ecosystems in transition: the experience of Australia and New Zealand”, New Zealand Journal of Geography 87 (April): 2-7. (Available at

Olson, Sherry 1988. “Environments as shock absorbers, examples from Madagascar”, Environmental Review 12-4 (Winter): 61-80

Olson, Sherry 1987. “Red destinies: the landscape of environmental risk in Madagascar”, Human Ecology 15-1: 67-89

Olson, Sherry, and Paul Gauthier 1984. “Qui est membre d’une coopérative d’habitation? ”  Service social 33-1 : 37-56

Olson, Sherry, and Michael Taylor 1984. “Les coopératives face aux fluctuations du marché de l’habitation”, Actualité immobilière 8-1 (printemps) : 11-22

Olson, Sherry 1984. “The robe of the ancestors: Forests in the history of Madagascar”, Journal of Forest History 28-4 (October): 174-86.

Hanna, David, and Sherry Olson 1983. “Métiers, loyers et bouts de rues: l’armature de la société montréalaise, 1881 à 1901”, Cahiers de Géographie du Québec 27, no 71 : 255-275.

Olson, Sherry 1982. “Urban metabolism and morphogenesis”, Urban Geography 3-2 (April-June): 87-109

Olson, Sherry 1980. Baltimore, Building an American City (Johns Hopkins University Press, 400pp.) First published in 1980, updated in 1997 (the city’s bicentennial), and chosen in 2012 as “Book of the Year” by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study

Olson, Sherry H. 1979. “An ecology of workplace hazards”, Economic Geography 55-4 (October): 287-308

Olson, Sherry H. 1979. “Baltimore imitates the spider”, Annals of the Assoc. of American Geographers 69-4 (December): 557-74

Olson, Sherry 1977. “The Mirage of long-range planning”, pp. 31-44 in Forestry and Long-Range Planning, F.J. Convery and C.W. Ralston, eds. Duke Univ. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Olson, Sherry 1976. Baltimore. Series Comparative Metropolitan Analysis Project of Assoc. of Amer. Geographers and National Science Foundation. (Ballinger Press, 112pp.)

Olson, Sherry H., Geoffrey N. Berlin, and L. Stephen Guiland 1973. “Computer modeling in a course on urban decision-making”, Simulation & Games 4-4 (December): 440-453

Olson, Sherry 1971. The Depletion Myth, A History of Railroad Use of Timber (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 228pp.)

Olson, Sherry 1966. “Some conceptual problems of interpreting the value of water in humid regions”, Water Resources Research 2-1 (First Quarter): 1-11

Hessler, Sherry O. 1962. “The great disturbing cause and the decline of the Queen City”, Bulletin Historical & Philosophical Society of Ohio (July): 169-185