Dawson, John Wiliam

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Dawson, John Wiliam

(b. Pictou, Nova Scotia, 13 October 1820; d. Montreal, Quebec, 19 November 1899)


Dawson’s father, James, was prominent in the business community of Pictou. Dawson obtained the master of arts degree at Edinburgh University in 1841 and returned to Pictou determined to follow geology as a profession. He was fortunate to have met both Charles Lyell, the foremost British geologist, and William Logan, first director of the Geological Survey of Canada, for both of whom he maintained a lifelong admiration and friendship. In 1842 the province of Nova Scotia engaged him to make a geological survey of its coalfields.

Dawson revisited Edinburgh University in 1846 for specialized instruction in natural science, returning in 1847 with his Scottish bride, Margaret Mercer. From 1847 to 1850 he carried out various researches in local geology, conducted courses of lectures and laboratory instruction at Dalhousie College (Halifax, Nova Scotia), and published several scientific papers. In 1850 he was appointed superintendent of education for Nova Scotia, in which capacity he visited every corner of the province; and in his spare time he amassed sufficient geological information to be able to publish his first important work, Acadian Geology (1855), which influenced geological thought and work in Nova Scotia until well after the end of the century.

So well did Dawson become known in educational circles that in 1855 he was offered the principalship of McGill University in Montreal, which he accepted, stipulating that he should also occupy the chair of natural history. Arriving at McGill, he was dismayed to find the staff meager, the students few, the buildings wretched, and funds inadequate. Yet almost singlehanded, by dint of perseverance, vision, and devotion, and by appeals to the board of governors and the business community of Montreal, within a score of years he had transformed an academic backwater into a progressive institution; and when he retired in 1893, McGill had become an internationally respected university. Although this accomplishment would have occupied all of the time and energy of an ordinary man, Dawson found time to publish an average of ten scientific papers a year (and probably a like number on educational, social, and religious matters); to take an active part in the Montreal Natural History Society, never missing a meeting or a field excursion, and serving for many years as president; to institute the McGill University library and to serve as its first librarian; to give courses in agriculture, botany, chemistry, geology, paleontology, and zoology, gradually relinquishing all but geology and paleontology; and to help found the Montreal Normal School (he had earlier helped to establish a normal school for Nova Scotia) and for thirteen years to serve as its principal. His interest in higher education for women played a major part in the founding of the Montreal High School for Girls in 1874; and he subsequently arranged, over stubborn opposition, for the admission of women to candidacy for the bachelor of arts degree.

Dawson was brought up in an atmosphere of Presbyterian fundamentalism; and his lifelong, unwavering adherence to this outlook directed and characterized all of his activities. A hundred or more religious articles and a dozen books of a popular nature show his zeal for the propagation of his ideas concerning the relationship between science and religion.

Dawson was elected fellow of the Geological Society of London (1854), Royal Society of London (1862), Academy of Arts and Sciences (Boston), American Philosophical Society, and Geological Society of America (1886; president, 1893). He served as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1886 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1882. The latter year he was the first president of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1881 he was awarded the Lyell Gold Medal by the Geological Society of London. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1884.

Although in his research Dawson neglected no phase of contemporary geology, it was in paleobotany that his reputation was greatest and most enduring. His treatment of fossil plants in Acadian geology shows that by 1855 he was in full command of contemporary paleobotanical techniques. Moreover, he had already demonstrated in his survey of the Nova Scotia coalfields that the coal beds belonged to three separate stratigraphic units, a concept that showed him to be far ahead of his time. In 1859 he published a description of Psilophyton, then the earliest land plant known, which he had found in Devonian strata in Gaspé. Scientists were reluctant to accept so strange a plant until in 1917 Kidston and Lang described similar fossils from Scotland, scarcely improving upon Dawson’s original descriptions. In 1884 Dawson began a study of the Cretaceous and Tertiary fossil plants from western Canada for the Geological Survey of Canada; a long series of papers, mostly in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, recorded his results. Throughout his career hardly a year passed without several papers on paleobotanical subjects being published; and his Geological History of Plants (1888) was a textbook practically without a competitor for several decades.

Dawson’s work on paleozoology was less uniform. He interpreted eozoon, now generally agreed to be a product of the metamorphism of limestone, as the fossil of a giant foraminifer—a view which, in the face of mounting and massive opposition, he neither modified nor abandoned. His bibliography contains more than a dozen papers and two books either justifying his stand or attempting to destroy opposing views. His discovery and description of Cambrian(?) sponges at Little Metis, Quebec, was so well done that to date no revision has been necessary. He assembled and described much of the postglacial arctic fauna found in sands and clays of glaciated eastern Canada, embodying this material in The Canadian Ice Age. His recognition of the earliest land snails was first recorded in 1853 as a result of a second visit to Joggins, Nova Scotia, with Sir Charles Lyell. This and later discoveries were brought together in Air Breathers of the Coal Period (1863). In that publication he also summed up his discoveries of amphibia and reptiles extracted from the fillings of tree stumps exposed along the Joggins shore. Some thirty of his publications were concerned with these vertebrate fossils. Almost immediately upon his arrival at McGill, excavations for new buildings on the college campus revealed artifacts and human bones that Dawson collected and preserved, assigning the site to the village of Hochelaga, visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535. From this he quite naturally progressed to a study of the North American Indians and thence to prehistoric human remains in Europe. His theories and conclusions are contained in his book Fossil Men (1880)

Throughout his paleontological writings Dawson stoutly inveighed against the rising tide of evolutionary thought. Chance variations, favored by the Darwinians, left no room for a divine guiding hand and so were rejected as factors in the production of past and present biotas.

In the field of geology, apart from paleontology, Dawson contributed much to the knowledge of the geology of Canada. His first important work, Acadian Geology, has already been noted. He never accepted the idea of continental glaciation and lost no opportunity in both popular and scientific writings to combat it; nevertheless, his Canadian Ice Age (1893) was, for its time, a remarkable treatment of events succeeding the Pleistocene glaciation. In the handbooks of Canadian geology, of invertebrate zoology, and of agriculture, he compressed vast amounts of information into easily digested form for classroom use.

Critical assessments of Dawson’s scientific work too often have emphasized his intransigent attitudes concerning eozoon, organic evolution, and continental glaciation. Glaring though these faults may appear to us today, they were amply compensated for by his positive accomplishments in many fields of science.


I. Original Works. Among Dawson’s scientific writings are “On the Remains of a Reptile (Dendrerpeton acadianum Wyman and Owen) and of a Land Shell Discovered in the Interior of an Erect Fossil Tree in the Coal Measures of Nova Scotia,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 9 (1853), 58–63; written with Charles Lyell; Acadian Geology; an Account of the Geological Structure and Mineral Resources of Nova Scotia and Neighboring Provinces of British America (Edinburgh, 1855; 2nd ed., 1868; 3rd ed., 1878; 4th ed., 1891); Air Breathers of the Coal Period (Montreal, 1863), also in Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, 8 (1863), 1–12, 81–88, 159–160, 161–175, 268–295; First Lessons in Scientific Agriculture for Schools and Private Instruction (Montreal-Toronto, 1870), new ed. (1897) written with S. P. Robins; Handbook of Zoology, With Examples From Canadian Species, Recent and Fossil. Invertebrata. Part I (Montreal, 1870; 3rd ed., 1886); The Fossil Plants of the Devonian and Upper Silurian Formations of Canada, Publications of the Geological Survey of Canada, pt. 1 (1871) pp.1–92;pt.2 (1882), pp. 93–142; Handbook of Geology for the Use of Canadian Students (Montreal, 1871; 1880; 1889); Notes on the Post-Pliocene Geology of Canada (Montreal, 1872); “Eozoön canadense,” in Nature, 10 (1874), 1–103; “On the Results of Recent Explorations of Erect Trees Containing Animal Remains in the Coal Formation of Nova Scotia,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 173 (1882), 621–659; On Specimens of Eozoon canadense and Their Geological History of Plants, international Scientific Series, no 61 (New York, 1888); “On Burrows and Tracks of Invertebrate animals in Paleozoic Rocks, and Other Markings,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 46 (1890), 595–617; The Canadian Ice Age (Montreal, 1893); and “Additional Notes on Fossil Sponges and other Organic Remains From the Quebec Group at Little Metis on the Lower St. Lawrence; With Notes on some of the Specimens by Dr. G. J. Hinde,” in Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 2nd ser., 2, sec. 4 (1896), 91–121.

In the following popular books Dawson sought to harmonize science with religion: Archaia, or Studies of the Narrative of the Creation in Genesis (Montreal, 1857); The Story of Earth and Man (London, 1872; Montreal-Toronto, 1873; 9th ed., London, 1887); The Dawn of Life (Montreal, 1875); also published as Life’s Dawn on Earth; Being the History of the Oldest Known Fossil Remains (London, 1875); The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science (Montreal, 1877; 6th ed., London, 1893); Fossil Men and Their Modern representatives (Montreal, 1880); the Chain of Life in Geologic Time (London, 1880; 3rd ed., 1888); Facts and Fancies in Modern Science (Philadelphia, 1882); Egypt and Syria, Their Physical Features in Relation to Bible History (Oxford, 1885); Modern Science in Bible Lands (Montreal-London, 1888; rev. ed., 1892); Modern Ideas in Evolution as Related to Revelation and Science (London, 1890); Some Salient Points in the Science of the Earth (London, 1893; New York, 1894); The Meeting Place of Geology and History (New york-Toronto-Chicago, 1894); and Relics of Primeval Life (Chicago-London, 1897).

Dawson’s autobiographical notes were published as Fifty Years of Work in Canada: Scientific and Educational, Rankine Dawson, ed. (London-Edinburgh, 1901).

II. Secondary Literature. On Dawson or his work, see F. D. Adams, “Memoir of Sir J. William Dawson,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 11 (1899), 550–557, with portrait; H. M. Ami, “Sir John William Dawson. A Brief Biographical Sketch,” in American Geologist, 26, no. 1 (1900), 1–48, with a bibliography of over 500 titles on 19–48; T. H. Clark, “Sir John William Dawson 1820–1899,” in Pioneers of Canadian Science, G. F. G. Stanley, ed. (Toronto, 1966), pp. 101–113; E. A. Collard, “Lyell and Dawson: A Centenary,” in Dalhousie Review, 22 (1942), 133–144.

T. H. Clark

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