Dawson, George Mercer (DNB12)

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DAWSON, GEORGE MERCER (1849–1901), geologist, eldest surviving son of Sir John William Dawson [q. v. Suppl. I] by his wife Margaret Mercer, was born on 2 Aug. 1849 at Pictou, Nova Scotia, but was taken to Montreal in 1855, when his father became president of McGill College. At ten he went to the high school in that city, but was soon removed because of weak health, and studied under tutors at home. He joined McGill College for the session of 1868-9, spending the summer of the latter year at Gaspe in dredging for foraminifera, the results of which were described in his first scientific paper. In 1870 he began work at the Royal School of Mines in London. He went through the full course, obtained the associateship, the Duke of Cornwall's scholarship, the Edward Forbes medal and prize in palaeontology, and the Murchison medal in geology, and in his summer holidays worked in the Lake district with James Clifton Ward [q. v.]. Dawson returned to Canada in 1872, and next year, after reporting on some mining properties in Nova Scotia and giving lectures at Morrin College, Quebec, was appointed geologist and botanist to the commission for drawing the boundary line between Canada and the United States from the Lake of the Woods to British Columbia. Facing without flinching much toil and hardship, he made a large collection of natural history specimens, now preserved partly at Kew and partly in the British Museum, and his excellent report, published in 1875, described a section over 800 miles in length, of which some 300 were previously unknown even to geographers. Dawson was next appointed to the Canadian geological survey, and made a long and important series of exploratory investigations in the North West and British Columbia. His reports deal with both economic and scientific geology, and contain many valuable notes on other branches of natural history and on ethnology. He showed the relation of the laramie and cretaceous formations, the occurrence of a fresh-water episode in the latter, the existence of archsean and early palaeozoic rocks in the plateau region of British Columbia, and of metamorphosed volcanic rocks in the Cordilleran region of that province and on the Lake of the Woods.

Dawson also pointed out that an ice-sheet had once had its centre in British Columbia; believing, however, that the northern part of the great plain had been submerged. The prescience of his remarks on economic questions has been thankfully acknowledged by those engaged in developing the resources of this great territory. After 1884 Dawson took a leading part in a committee formed by the British Association for studying the north-western tribes of Canada, and subsequently engaged in the ethnological survey of the dominion. With W. F. Tolmie he published in 1884 'Comparative Vocabularies of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia.' In 1883 he was made assistant-director of the geological survey and succeeded Dr. A. R. C. Selwyn as director in 1895.

He was appointed one of the Behring Sea Commissioners in 1891 to investigate the conditions of seal life in the North Pacific, making a long cruise in that region (the scientific results of which were published by the Geological Society of America in 1894). Afterwards he took part in the conference at Washington and helped in preparing the British case for the arbitration at Paris in 1893. Sir Richard Webster (now Lord Alverstone) spoke in the highest terms of the value of Dawson's services.

Dawson was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1875 and of the Royal Society in 1891. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, its president in 1894, and president also of the Geological Society of America in 1900. He received the degree of D.Sc. from Princetown University in 1887, of LL.D. from the Queen's University in 1890, from McGill University in 1891, and from Toronto University in 1897. He was awarded the Bigsby medal of the Geological Society of London in 1891 and the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1897. He was created C.M.G. for his services in the Behring Sea arbitration.

Though rather small in stature, frail in aspect, and slightly deformed in consequence of an accident in childhood, Dawson was capable of prolonged physical and mental labour, was an excellent talker, and wrote with facility in prose and verse, the latter both grave and gay. His contributions to science were about 130 in number. He died unmarried at Ottawa of bronchitis, after a two days' illness, on 2 March 1901.

[Geol. Mag. 1897 (with portrait) and 1901; Quarterly Journal of Gcol. Soc. 1902; Proc. and Trans. Roy. Soc. of Canada (memoir by Prof. Harrington, with portrait and list of publications), 1902.]

T. G. B.