Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/December 1893/Sketch of Sir Daniel Wilson
|SKETCH OF SIR DANIEL WILSON.|
THE late President of Toronto University was distinguished not only for his educational work and his achievements in science, literature, and art, but also for the happy combination in his mind and character of qualities which are commonly deemed incongruous. An ardent votary of science, prepared to follow every investigation of Nature to the utmost limit of actual knowledge, and to welcome every accession to this knowledge, he was equally firm in maintaining his belief in the religion which explained to him those mysteries of the universe that lay beyond this limit. Strongly conservative of ancient landmarks in his quality of artist and antiquary, he was in education and in politics fearlessly liberal and progressive. Endowed with an energy of will and an intellectual power which inevitably brought him to the leadership of any enterprise or institution in which he took part, he was at the same time utterly devoid of personal ambition, and shrank from titular honors with the same earnestness with which some are wont to seek them. Generous almost to a fault and careless of the arts of money-making, his natural foresight and indefatigable industry preserved him from the pecuniary troubles by which scholars and writers are too often hampered, and secured for him throughout his life that good fortune for which poor Burns vainly sighed, "the glorious privilege of being independent."
Sir Daniel Wilson was born in Edinburgh on the 3d of January, 1816. His father, Archibald Wilson, was a merchant of that city; his mother was a woman of rare natural gifts, who fostered in her children the love of knowledge which they inherited from her. Of a large family, only four—two sons and two daughters—survived to mature age. The sons, George and Daniel, both proved to possess talents which insured them early distinction. George, a physician, became Regius Professor of Technology in the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Industrial Museum of Scotland. Though he died at the early age of forty-two, he had already gained a European reputation. To his biography, written by his sister, Daniel contributed reminiscences which are of interest as indicating the existence in childhood of tastes which afterward became prominent. "Edinburgh," he writes, "was the scene of all our youthful years, and that itself was no unimportant element in life's training. Among my earliest recollections are scramblings on Arthur's Seat, where we knew every cleft and gully. A Saturday's ramble carried us away to old Roman Cramond, where the sculptured eagle of the legionaries of the second century, still visible on the rocks, was a source of never-failing wonder to us. The ruins of Both well and Crichton Castles, of Roman camps, and historical scenes already possessed an interest for us. A good deal of antiquarianism mingled with our natural history, and two of us were already embryo numismatists, and knew a Roman denarius from a bodle as well as Edie Ochiltree himself."
Daniel's education was commenced in the famous High School of Edinburgh, whence he passed to the still more famous university of that city. At this period the special turn and capacity for art which he always retained was so strong as to induce him, on his graduation, to decide to make the pursuit of it his profession. With this object he removed to London, where a notable group of great painters was then rising into fame. At their head was Turner, with whom he soon became intimate. He describes him as an "old, slovenly, slouching little man, as remote from the ideal of artist or poet as could well be conceived; but the flash of his keen gray eyes redeemed the face from the otherwise vulgar and sensual look." The door of the strange house in Queen Anne Street was freely open to the young student; and he found in his repeated visits that the great painter could be kind and genial to an enthusiastic youth, while grimly ridiculing his enthusiasm.
In 1840 Wilson brought to London as his bride a Scottish lady. They had three daughters, the first of whom was born in London. She died ten months later, when with her mother visiting the old home. This affliction changed the course of the parents' life. They decided to return to Edinburgh, and Wilson, giving up art as a life-pursuit, devoted himself to literature. His diligent pen and varied talents soon found ample occupation. "He was," we are told by one of his biographers, "a constant contributor to The Scotsman, and wrote for Tait's Magazine, Chambers's Miscellany, the British Quarterly, North British Review, Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Gentleman's Magazine, and other periodicals. He contributed articles to the edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica then in progress, as well as to subsequent issues, and he edited for a time the Proceedings of the Scottish Antiquary. He also prepared for friendly publishers some historical books, which, though creditably written, he afterward refused to include in the list of his acknowledged writings, counting them mere compilations and craftsman's work, as distinguished from the productions of original research, to which he was soon to owe his fame.
The first of these was published in 1848, under the title of Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time, by Daniel Wilson, Acting Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. It filled two quarto volumes, illustrated throughout with fine engravings of the buildings and localities described, all from his own drawings. The pictures are enlivened by characteristic figures of people engaged in their ordinary vocations, presented with a life and spirit which show how far superior in these qualities the higher efforts of the draughtsman's art are to the best photography. The description and historical explanations evince deep research, combined with a genial temper and lively humor, which make the work attractive reading. It has been twice reprinted, the latest revised edition appearing in 1890. In his next publication the author found a subject of wider scope, and assumed a higher position. He had passed from art to literature, from literature to archæological study, and now emerged on the loftier plane of pure science, to which his intellectual tastes and faculties naturally tended. In 1851 appeared his Archæology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, which was revised and reproduced in two volumes as Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, in 1803. The expressive adjective "prehistoric," which was first employed in this title and work, has since made its way into the language of almost every civilized nation, and in France constitutes, as Le Préhistorique, the title of an important science. In his preface the author dwells earnestly on the importance of this science of prehistoric man, and expresses his surprise that "the British Association, expressly constituted for the purpose of giving a stronger impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific inquiry, embraced within its original scheme no provision for the encouragement of those investigations which most directly tend to throw light on the origin and progress of the human race. Physical archæology was indeed admissible, in so far as it dealt with the extinct fauna of the paleontologist; but it was practically pronounced to be without the scientific pale whenever it touched on that portion of the archæology of the globe which comprehends the race of human beings to whom we ourselves belong." A delusive hope had been raised by the publication, in the first volume of the Transactions of the Association, of "one memoir on the contributions afforded by physical and philological researches to the history of the human species"; but the ethnologist was doomed to disappointment. From that time all papers relating to this important branch of knowledge had been constantly rejected. It was no small triumph for Sir Daniel Wilson when, thirty-three years later, at the Montreal meeting of the British Association, in 1884, in which he held a prominent position, anthropology was admitted to the rank of a distinct "section," and a committee was appointed, of which he was a member, to investigate the tribes of northwestern Canada—a committee from which very extensive reports of "physical and philological researches" have been warmly welcomed by the Association, and have formed a conspicuous feature of its recent volumes. The publication of this work changed his entire career. The high reputation which it gave him—a reputation sufficiently indicated by Hallam's opinion that the book was "the most scientific treatment of the archæological evidences of primitive history that had ever been written"—procured him the appointment, in 1853, to the chair of History and Literature at University College in Toronto. He removed to that city, and, as one who knew him and the colony in those days has written, "he brought a new element into the life of the place, and indeed of the province. Representing 'letters,' and winning favor to them by his eloquent speech, in a community too much absorbed in business, he has left his mark clear and deep on young Ontario and the whole Dominion. Thousands have been consciously benefited by his character, life, and works." From this time till his death, nearly forty years after, his life was bound up with the interests of the college. It was his boast that for thirty years he never omitted a lecture. The work of his professorship harmonized with his tastes, and gave him a field in which his powers were soon felt. "As a lecturer in history," we are told, "he was noted for the breadth and liberality of his views, and for the spirit of toleration and courtesy which he displayed toward those who differed from him. In archæology and ethnology, subjects peculiarly his own, he never failed to excite interest, and generally succeeded in arousing no small degree of enthusiasm."
But other and less congenial duties were frequently cast upon him. The large endowment granted by the Government to the secularized university was deemed by the denominational colleges an injustice and an injury to themselves. A determined effort was instituted by their supporters to secure a division of it among the different colleges. An appeal was made to the Legislature, which referred the question to a committee. Before this committee. Prof. Wilson, as the foremost member of University College, was appointed to appear and defend the interests of his college and the cause of secular education. This he did with so much force of argument that the hostile attempt was promptly defeated, and was never afterward renewed. All controversy was distasteful to him, but when a cause dear to him was endangered, and the "perfervid Scottish temper" was once aroused, he could strike heavy blows. In the present case the usual reluctance was felt, but finally, he wrote, "I plucked up heart of grace, and found a grim satisfaction in mauling the assailants of our college militant."
In 1880, on the death of the Rev. Dr. McCaul, who was the first President of University College, Prof. Wilson was promoted to that office. The position gave at last the needed opportunity for the display of his remarkable energy and organizing talent, always directed by a judicious forethought and impelled by an untiring zeal. In a sketch written soon after his death, we are told that "the twelve years of his régime have been marked by an extraordinary rapidity of development in various directions. The attendance of students has greatly increased, so that they now number about five hundred in the faculty of arts alone. The teaching medical faculty has been restored to the university, and is now in a highly prosperous condition. A foundation for a law faculty has been laid. The university has been brought into more effective and beneficial relation to the secondary schools, by the establishment of a co-operative supervision over their leaving examinations. During the past six years women have been permitted to attend lectures in the university and University College, their number being now about one fifth of the whole attendance, and the ratio rapidly increasing. Several additional institutions have been taken into affiliation with the university, which has thus been strengthened with the whole community, as well as with many special and powerful interests."
As originally established, the University of Toronto and University College were to a certain extent distinct institutions. The university was simply an examining and degree-conferring corporation, while University College was a teaching institution, with a faculty of arts. By a recent change, part of the teaching function, comprising all the work in science, philosophy, and history, has been transferred to the university; and as a result, the President of the College became actually, as he had been in common parlance, the President of the University.
For the interests of science and literature it was probably fortunate that Prof. Wilson's accession to the college presidency, with the consequent great increase in his scholastic duties, did not occur at an earlier day. During the twenty-seven years which elapsed between his arrival in Toronto and this accession, he had leisure to pursue his studies in various directions. In 1862 appeared his most important work, entitled Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilization in the Old and the New World. This work attracted much attention on both continents, and gave a new direction, particularly in Germany, to anthropological inquiry. A second edition appeared in 1865, still in one volume. The continuing demand and the growth of scientific knowledge called for a new and revised issue, with many additions, which appeared in 1875, in two large and finely illustrated volumes.
The author's literary taste and judgment were happily shown in his admirable book, Chatterton: a Biographical Study, which appeared in 1869. It was a thoroughly successful effort to rehabilitate the moral character of the "marvelous boy," as well as to display the real nature and extent of his surprising intellectual powers. The attraction which drew the biographer to his subject was doubtless the similarity of archæological and poetical tastes. Early in life he had published like—Chatterton, under an assumed name—a little volume of verse, entitled Spring Wild Flowers: Poems, by Wil. D'Leina, of the Outer Temple. By request of the publisher, the collection was reprinted in 1875, with the author's name, and with a modestly deprecatory preface, in which he solicits indulgence for these "sins of his youth." But an impartial critic would find nothing to offend and much to be admired in the volume. Caliban: The Missing Link, appeared in 1873, a genial, half-humorous, and wholly shrewd and happy commentary on Shakespeare, Darwin, and Browning, full of keen suggestions, which the admirers of those famous authors would do well to study with care. The vivid recollections of his early home appeared in his Reminiscences of Old Edinburgh, published in 1875, in two charming volumes of mingled history, description, and gossip, beautifully illustrated by pen-and-ink sketches from the author's hand, in his peculiarly vivid and animated style. Among other claims which may be made for this work is that of being the best commentary (next to Scott's own) on the famous "Scotch novels" of the author's illustrious townsman.
For a time the duties of the presidency interrupted Sir Daniel's authorship. But in 1891 appeared a volume on Left-handedness, comprising, as a reviewer remarked, "a careful and comprehensive discussion of the origin and nature of the prevailing distinction between the uses of the two hands and the consequences which follow this distinction." Sir Daniel was himself left-handed; but, like other eminent men who have been subject to this apparent disability—including a personage no less distinguished than the illustrious artist and mechanician, Leonardo da Vinci—he was able to convert it into an advantage by the simple process of cultivating the use of his right hand, and thus making himself ambidexterous. He was accustomed to write with his right hand and draw with his left; and both his handwriting and drawing were of unusual excellence. This volume was followed in 1892 by his latest work—and, as it proved, a posthumous publication—entitled The Lost Atlantis and other Ethnographic Studies. This was a collection of essays on various ethnological and archæological subjects, reprinted from the Transactions of scientific societies, and chiefly from those of the Royal Society of Canada. The volume of four hundred pages comprises only eight essays, but each of them, as a reviewer has said, "is a complete monograph on the special subject to which it relates; and every subject has its peculiar interest and value to students of history and the science of man." These subjects comprise, besides the well-known Atlantis legend, The Vinland of the Northmen, Trade and Commerce in the Stone Age, Pre-Aryan American Man, The Æsthetic Faculty in Aboriginal Races, The Huron-Iroquois—a Typical Race, Hybridity and Heredity, and Relative Brain-weight and Size. The volume may be said to fitly sum up its author's life-long studies of these important topics.
But this anticipates. Sir Daniel's later years were marked by events of grave moment. In 1885 a great and irreparable personal loss befell him in the death of his wife, "after forty-five years of as great wedded happiness as ever fell to the lot of man." The event made little change in his outward demeanor; but how deeply it affected him was shown three years later, when the honor of knighthood was unexpectedly bestowed upon him. In general, as has been said, he cared nothing for merely titular distinctions. For her sake, to gratify her wifely pride and affection, this honor might have been acceptable. As it was, he at first positively declined to accept the title. But pressure from all sides came upon him. He wrote in his own amusing vein: "I have had the honor and glory of knighthood for a full week—telegrams, cable messages, letters of congratulation, time for little else but replying. To a jolly old bumble-bee the process of feeding on honey and being smothered in rose leaves is probably the ideal of happiness; but to a wingless biped like myself a little goes a long way. And what are most covetable honors, now that my Maggie is gone?" But the friendly urgency proved too great for resistance, and he yielded at last to the general desire of the community, which, reasonably enough, saw in the title simply an evidence of well-earned respect and public gratitude.
Not long afterward, his unremitting labors for the advancement of his university were interrupted by a serious calamity. On the 14th of February, 1890, a fire broke out in the principal college building, which destroyed nearly the whole of its contents, including its fine library of thirty-three thousand volumes and most of its museum collections. The president's action was characteristic. Instead of being depressed by the blow, as might have been expected in a man of seventy-four, his spirit rose with the occasion. He was early on the ground, giving every assistance in his power to rescue what could be saved. Returning home late at night, he said to one anxiously watching for him: "Well, the old building's gone; but never mind. It wasn't large enough for us. We'll soon have a better one." To a colleague who came in a few minutes later, saying, "O Mr. President, don't be discouraged," he replied: "Discouraged! I should think not. You'll see, we'll soon have a far finer building." Before sleeping that night he had formed his plans. On the next day, which happened to be Saturday, he so arranged for Monday's lectures being held in various buildings kindly placed at his disposal, that the college and university work continued without the interruption of a single lecture. Hundreds of letters poured in, but not one of them was left without a suitable reply. "Courtesy does not cost much," was his frequent answer, when urged to take no notice of seemingly trivial letters. Encouraged by public sympathy, and bent on seeing his much-prized university more than itself again, he seemed to renew his youth. "Sir Daniel is the youngest man in college," was a common saying at the time. "I mean," he wrote, "not to bate heart or hope; but trust, near as I am to the goal of life, to see the renovated pile in its old beauty, and vastly improved within." This hope was fulfilled, mainly, it may be said, through the influence of his own great reputation and the character for liberality of comprehension, irrespective of class, creed, or race, which he had stamped upon the institution. Offers of substantial aid to the building fund, the library, and the museum came from numerous and often unexpected quarters in Europe and America, including a generous contribution from the Legislature of Roman Catholic Quebec. So rapidly was the work of renovation pushed on that at the college "commencement" of 1891 he was enabled to give his presidential address—one of the most eloquent and brilliant, and unfortunately, as the event proved, the last of his efforts in that line, in one of the new halls; and before his death the restoration of the university, in a condition far superior to that which it held before the fire, had been practically completed.
Among other honors it may be mentioned that he received the degree of LL. D. from the University of Aberdeen, and later also from McGill University, of Montreal, of which, at an earlier day, he had been offered the presidency. He was for several years President of the Canadian Institute of Toronto, the leading scientific association of Ontario. When the Royal Society of Canada was founded by the Governor-General, Lord Lome, he was at first made president of its Literature Section, and three years later was elected president of the society. He was a member of various learned societies in Europe and America, too numerous to mention. In religious and charitable associations at home he was an active worker. He aided in founding Wycliffe College in Toronto, and was at his death a member of its governing board. The newsboys of the city attracted his special care, and it was mainly through his efforts that the "Newsboys' Home," a most useful and well-managed charity, was founded and maintained.
Near the close of his life one special honor came to him which he highly prized. In the summer of 1891 he paid his last visit to Scotland. While he was there, the "freedom" of his native city was, with much public ceremony and cordial demonstration, conferred upon him, and he thus happily "renewed his youth as the youngest burgess of the guild." His portrait was also painted byrequest, that it might have a place in the Scottish Portrait Gallery. It now hangs there, an admirable work of art by Sir George Reid, President of the Scottish Academy. To Sir Daniel, Edinburgh was (in his own words) "as Jerusalem was to the royal Hebrew, or the city of the violet crown to the old Athenian"; and these marks of the esteem and personal regard of his early friends and their children were specially grateful and cheering. On his return home the elasticity of his spirits was noted by his friends and correspondents. A busy winter followed, in which his energy and intellectual force showed themselves in no way abated. Then, almost suddenly, the end came. A brief and nearly painless illness closed with his death on August G, 1892, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.
His life was, as he himself said, "a singularly happy one." "I have been fortunate," he wrote, "beyond my deserts, and seem to have had far more than my share of God's best gifts." The qualities which insured this singular happiness appear to deserve particular note. A naturally sanguine and sunny temperament had doubtless much to do with it, but the main element was unquestionably his entire unselfishness. His thoughts were constantly for others, and were only for himself so far as the power of serving others was concerned. This disposition was quickly evident to all with whom he came in contact, and was evinced in many ways, great and small. "His colleagues," we are told by one who knew him intimately, "noted his extreme thoughtfulness for others and forgetfulness of self. This naturally led to harmonious relations and strong attachments. One writes, "My friendship for him is one of the sweetest recollections of my life"; and he was not alone in the expression of such a feeling. In his students he took a deep personal interest, frequently inviting them to his house. In their debating societies, sports, and Young Men's Christian Association they could always rely on his practical sympathy. No length of years diminished his interest in a former student's fortunes. The result was a strong affection for him, which was displayed whenever an occasion offered.
A striking characteristic, we are told, "was his unfailing fun. It made his home a very merry one. His letters are full of it, and remind one of Thackeray in their humor. With his students a joke was a more potent weapon for maintaining order than a reproof. He would cleverly turn the laugh of the class against some idler or disturber of the peace. Senate and council meetings were relieved of their tedium by his ready wit; and when in good spirits—and he was rarely otherwise—he was a great acquisition to any social gathering. In early days he wrote valentines for his daughters, and was found out in delivering one of them by losing his spectacles, which had to be recovered the next day."
He shone as a correspondent. Few idle men kept up so large a correspondence as this extremely busy one. His letters, frank, cordial, sympathetic, full of lively touches, apt suggestions, and pleasant reminiscences, were highly prized by all who were favored with them, and gave naturally to strangers who read them a most pleasing impression of the writer's character. The fortunes of his friends were always in his mind. Nothing of joy or sorrow could happen to one of them without eliciting from him a letter of sympathy, which exactly fitted the need. The dumb animals about him—"My poor relations," as he was wont to style them—shared his tenderness. Long after his death, "a favorite cat haunted his vacant study, evidently seeking the friend who would rather resign his favorite chair than have her disturbed." His benevolence was not undiscriminating, as the regulations of his "Newsboys' Home" sufficiently show; but in his private charities he allowed himself a freer hand and, so to speak, a willing credulity. "He was a perfect fortune to beggars. Taken in again and again, every new applicant seemed to him 'a very decent-looking fellow,' especially if he happened to be Scotch. And if nothing else could be said, he would excuse his generosity by 'It's hard to be poor,' or 'I was once poor myself.' He did, indeed, note that the word 'borrow' seemed to have no connection with that other word 'repay'; but he went on lending still." A poor woman who, coming to ask for him, found crape on the door, went away saying, "The blessing of those that consider the poor will surely fall on him and his."
It is easy to predict that this singularly fine character, illustrious for many great qualities and achievements, and with no shadows except such pardonable failings as "lean to virtue's side," will shine brighter in becoming better known, and will be hereafter ranked among the beacon-lights of the age. In the scientific world, the large-minded and far-seeing scholar, who first gave a place and a name to the science of "prehistoric man," must always be a conspicuous figure.