1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dawson, Sir John William

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DAWSON, SIR JOHN WILLIAM (1820–1899), Canadian geologist, was born at Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the 30th of October 1820. Of Scottish descent, he went to Edinburgh to complete his education, and graduated at the university in 1842, having gained a knowledge of geology and natural history from Robert Jameson. On his return to Nova Scotia in 1842 he accompanied Sir Charles Lyell on his first visit to that territory. Subsequently he was appointed to the post of superintendent of education (1850–1853); at the same time he entered zealously into the geology of the country, making a special study of the fossil forests of the coal-measures. From these strata, in company with Lyell (during his second visit) in 1852, he obtained the first remains of an “air-breathing reptile” named Dendrerpeton. He also described the fossil plants of the Silurian, Devonian and Carboniferous rocks of Canada for the Geological Survey of that country (1871–1873). From 1855 to 1893 he was professor of geology and principal of M‘Gill University, Montreal, an institution which under his influence attained a high reputation. He was elected F.R.S. in 1862. When the Royal Society of Canada was constituted he was the first to occupy the presidential chair, and he also acted as president of the British Association at its meeting at Birmingham in 1886, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Sir William Dawson’s name is especially associated with the Eozoon canadense, which in 1864 he described as an organism having the structure of a foraminifer. It was found in the Laurentian rocks, regarded as the oldest known geological system. His views on the subject were contested at the time, and have since been disproved, the so-called organism being now regarded as a mineral structure. He was created C.M.G. in 1881, and was knighted in 1884. In his books on geological subjects he maintained a distinctly theological attitude, declining to admit the descent or evolution of man from brute ancestors, and holding that the human species only made its appearance on this earth within quite recent times. Besides many memoirs in the Transactions of learned societies, he published Acadian Geology: The geological structure, organic remains and mineral resources of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (1855; ed. 3, 1878); Air-breathers of the Coal Period (1863); The Story of the Earth and Man (1873; ed. 6, 1880); The Dawn of Life (1875); Fossil Men and their Modern Representatives (1880); Geological History of Plants (1888); The Canadian Ice Age (1894). He died on the 20th of November 1899.

His son, George Mercer Dawson (1849–1901), was born at Pictou on the 1st of August 1849, and received his education at M‘Gill University and the Royal School of Mines, London, where he had a brilliant career. In 1873 he was appointed geologist and naturalist to the North American boundary commission, and two years later he joined the staff of the geological survey of Canada, of which he became assistant director in 1883, and director in 1895. He was in charge of the Canadian government’s Yukon expedition in 1887, and his name is permanently written in Dawson City, of gold-bearing fame. As one of the Bering Sea Commissioners he spent the summer of 1891 investigating the facts of the seal fisheries on the northern coasts of Asia and America. For his services there, and at the subsequent arbitration in Paris, he was made a C.M.G. He was elected F.R.S. in 1891, and in the same year was awarded the Bigsby medal by the Geological Society of London. He was president of the Royal Society of Canada in 1893. He died on the 2nd of March 1901. He was the author of many scientific papers and reports, especially on the surface geology and glacial phenomena of the northern and western parts of Canada.