Principal of McGill University 1855-1893

From: "Canadian Men & Women of the time 1898"
Ed. By Henry James Morgan, Toronto, 1898

Sir John William Dawson, educationist, geologist and naturalist, is the son of the late James Dawson, of Pictou, N.S., and
was born at that place, Oct.13,1820.  At the age of 12 years the instinct for science, inherited from his father, had begun to assert itself, and he began making a collection of the fossil plants of the N.S. coal formation. His education was begun at
Pictou Acadamy and completed at the University of Edinburgh.  After a winter spent at the latter institution, he accompanied
Sir Charles Lyell on his tour through N.S., finished his collegiate course in 1846, and returned home, having already contributed something of importance to the geological knowledge of his province.  In 1850 he was appointed Supt. of Education for N.S., an office which he held for 3 yrs.  He had already made himself prominent by the publication of many papers, reports and lectures, on a variety of subjects, characterized by original and valuable research. From this time he became chiefly distinguished in his own province as an indefatigable promoter of educational progress, and a founder of educational institutions.  He took an active part in the establishment of a Normal School in N.S., and in the.regulation of the affairs of
the University of N.B.  About 1852 he re-examined in company with Sir Charles Lyell the Joggins section, and visited the Albertite deposits at Hillsborough, N.B.  He published after his trip, papers on the "Structures in Coal" and the "Mode of Accumulation of Coal".

A few years after this McGill University was looking for a head, and Dr. Dawson was secured as Principal of McGill and Professor of Natural History. He took up his task in 1855, and saw the institution grow slowly but surely, from small beginnings to its present important position as a University among the great seats of learning in America and Europe.  It has been stated that when he took charge, the College management was at the lowest.  The Arts and Law courses were highly unsatisfactory, but in a short time there was a great change for the better.  Enterprising and influential men of means aided him in his efforts, with the result already described.  At the time of his appointment as Principal of McGill, one of the great drawbacks to the success of the University  was the want of efficient, and superior schools to prepare pupils for matriculation. To meet this he secured, in 1857, the establishment of the McGill Normal School, for the training of Protestant school teachers. He became Principal of the school, and laboured in that position wifh success for 13 yrs.  He also succeeded in 1858 in establishing a School of Civil Engineering.  Later, this branch of science was placed on a more comprehensive basis as the Department of Practical and Applied Science in the University.

His reputation in the scientific world rests mainly on his geology investigations and discoveries, more especially in relation to the carboniferous and post-pliocene formations, to fossil plants and the fossils of the Laurentian rocks.   On these subjects he has written a number of memoirs, to be found in the proceedings of the various learned societies, in scientific journals, and in official reports to Government.  He is the author of a, number of standard works, covering a large field of scientific investigation and elucidation.  In 1841 he contributed to the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh his first scientific paper, on the species of field-mice found in N.S,  In 1843 he communicated a paper on the rocks of Eastern N.S. to the Geology Society of London; followed in 1844 by another paper on the newer coal formation.  In 1845, he published a paper on the coal formation plants of N. S., and explored the Londonderry mines.  During the winter of 1846-7,  while  studying in  Edinburgh, he contributed papers to the Royal Society of that city: on the "Occurrence of Gypsum  and on the "Boulder Formation," and an article to Jameson's Edinburgh Phil.  Journal on the "Renewal of Forests Destroyed by Fire."  The most important of his of her memoirs are:
"On the Triassic Red Sandstone of N. S. and P. E. I.," "On the Colouring Matters of  Red Sandstone," and on "The Metamorphic Rocks of N. S."  It was during his trip to the Joggins with Sir Charles Lyell that the remains of Dendrerpeton  Acadianum and Pupavetusta were found, the former the first reptile found in the coal formation, and the latter the first known palaeozoic land snail. These were followed by other discoveries of the first carboniferous millipede.

During the summer of 1858 he made a tour of Lake Superior, and made an elaborate report on the copper regions of Georgian Bay and Maimanse, in which he discussed the geology relations of the then little known copper-bearing rocks of the north shore of Lake Superior, and the origin of deposits of native copper.  About 1860, he enlarged and revised his book on "Acadian Geology," which is a complete account up to date of the geology formation of the maritime provinces of the
Dominion.  A second edition, published in 1868, and illustrated, still remains a standard work in geology for this  part  of the Dominion.  Some 3 yrs.  later appeared "Archaia, or Studies of Creation in Genesis," in which the author shows himself to be not only an accurate scientist, but a profound and reverent student of the Bible.  This work was afterward re-written and modernized, and published in 1877, under the title of " The Origin of the World."

In 1863 he published "Air Breathers of the Coal Period"--the collected result of many  years' study devoted to the fossil reptiles and other land animals of the coal of N. S.  A year later he discovered the now celebrated "Eozoon Canadense" -the only animal remains in the  Lanrentian  rocks,  which had hitherto been considered azoic. In 1865 Dr. Dawson lectured before the British Association at Birmingham; and in 1870 before the Royal Institute and Geology Society  In the latter year appeared "Hand-Book of Canadian Zoology  "; and in 1872 "Notes on the Post-Pliocene of Canada," which raised the number of species of known post-pliocene fossils from 30 to over 200.

In the meantime he had been continually occupied in the management of his University and of the Protestant Normal School, both requiring his constant attention and the best of his labour, not only as a principal,  but as a lecturer.   In 1870 he withdrew from his active duties in the Normal School, still, however, remaining chairman of its management committee.

His laterworks have been of a general and comprehensive character and very valuable.   "The Story of Earth and Man" is a popular view of the whole of the geology ages; "Science of the Bible" and ''The Dawn of Life," an illustrated work on Eozoon
and of her ancient fossils,  "The Chain of Life," "The Origin of the World,"  "Salient  Points  in  the Science of the Earth," "Science in Bible Lands," "The Meeting Place of Geology and History,"  "The Historical Deluge " "Eden Lost and Won," and
"Ethics of Primeval Life," are all of them profound and interesting  works,  open  to  the general reader as much as to the

In 1881 he was awarded the Lyell medal of the Geol. Society, London, for original geology  researches. On the formation of the Royal Society of Canada, 1882, he was selected by the Marquis of Lorne to be its first President.  In the same year  he was elected Presdent of the American  Association  for the Advancement of Science, and became President of the British Association, 1886.  In 1893 he was elected President of the American Geology Society.  In special acknowledgment of his eminent services to science and education he was created a C.M.G., 1881, and was made a Knight Bach., 1884.

Sir William  is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the London Geol. Soc., a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an LL.D. of Edinburgh University, an LL.D. of McGill University,  a D.C.L. of Lennoxville University,  and a D.L. of Columbia
College, N.Y.  He retired from the office of Principal of McGill University, July .31, 1893, and was thereupon appointed. Emeritus Principal and professor and governor's Fellow as well as hon. curator of the Peter Redpath Museum, and given a handsome allowance for his lifetime. Sir William married in March 1847 to Margaret A.Y. Mercer, daughter of G. Mercer of Edinburgh. In March 1897, the golden wedding of Sir William and Lady Dawson, was celebrated in Montreal, on which occassion they were made the recipients of several addresses of congratulation, accompanied by souvenirs of the interesting event.
address - 293 University St., Montreal

" To him Canada owes much more than can be expressed."--Canadian Gazette.

" He has been for more fhan a third of a century recognized by all competent judges
as one of the few guest masters of that wonderful science which seeks to read the
handwriting of God on the face of the rocks. There was a considerable period of time
when Prof. Dawson's special distinction among geologists was partly derived from
his maintenance of a religious view of his science rather than of the rationaiistic or
agnostic view which found favour in wellknown quarters. The eminent Canadian
geologist has always contended that geology rightly understood and the Bible rightly
interpreted do not conflict."--Boston Advertizer

see also: His sons  George Mercer Dawson  and William Bell Dawson

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