Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/December 1875/Sketch of Dr. John W. Dawson

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PSM V08 D140 John William Dawson.jpg

Principal J. W. DAWSON.


JOHN WILLIAM DAWSON was born at Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1820. He received his early academic training in the College of Pictou. Here, in addition to the regular course of study, he investigated with great success the natural history of his native province, thus early manifesting a taste for original scientific inquiry.

Having finished his course at Pictou, he entered the University of Edinburgh. After a winter's study he returned to Nova Scotia, and devoted himself with ardor to geological research. He was the companion of Sir Charles Lyell during his tour in Nova Scotia, in 1842.

In the autumn of 1846 he returned to the University of Edinburgh, his special objects of study being now practical chemistry and other subjects, of which he had found the necessity in the original work in which he was engaged.

In 1850 he was appointed Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia. This office he held for three years, and rendered valuable service to that province at a time of special interest in the history of its schools and educational institutions. He also took an active part in the establishment of a normal school in Nova Scotia, and in the regulation of the affairs of the University of New Brunswick, as a member of the commission appointed by Sir Edmund Head for the purpose.

In 1855 he was called to the position which he still holds, that of Principal and Professor of Natural History in McGill College and University, an institution which, situated in Montreal, the commercial capital of Canada, draws its students from all parts of the Dominion. The university has prospered under his wise and liberal management beyond the most sanguine expectations of its friends and promoters.

The raising of McGill College to its present position would have been work enough in itself for these years, but in addition to this Dr. Dawson has had under his care the Protestant Normal School. From his position there he has had a great deal to do with the moulding and controlling of the school system of the country. After many years' faithful work, he withdrew (in 1870) from this office.

His special work in connection with the university and the normal school took up much of that time which would have otherwise have been devoted to original investigations in his favorite science.

A review of his more important scientific labors will show us how much may be done even in the midst of engrossing educational occupations. As early as 1830 Dr. Dawson began to make collections of the fossil plants of the Nova Scotia coal formation. In 1841 he contributed to the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh his first scientific paper, on the species of field-mice found in Nova Scotia. In 1843 he communicated a paper on the rocks of Eastern Nova Scotia to the Geological Society of London; this was followed in 1844 by a paper on the newer coal formation. In 1845, besides exploring and reporting on the iron-mines of Londonderry, Nova Scotia, he published a paper on the coal fossils of that province.

During the winter of 1846-'47, while studying in Edinburgh, he contributed to the Royal Society of that city papers on the "Formation of Gypsum," and on the "Bowlder Formation," and an article to Jameson's Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, on the "Renewal of Forests destroyed by Fire." The facts embodied in the last were subsequently employed by him in combating the exaggerated periods of time assigned to such changes by European geologists.

From 1847 to 1849 we find him, with the same never-flagging zeal, pursuing his geological researches, and giving the results to the world infrequent papers. The most important of these are: 1. "On the Triassic Red Sandstones of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island;" 2. "On the Coloring Matters of Red Sandstones;" 3. "On Erect Calamites found near Pictou;" 4. "On the Metamorphic Rocks of Nova Scotia." He also published his "Handbook of the Geography and Natural History of Nova Scotia," and delivered courses of lectures on natural history and geology in the Pictou Academy, and in Dalhousie College, Halifax, and reported to the Nova Scotia Government on the coal-fields of Southern Cape Breton.

In 1852, in company with Sir Charles Lyell, he-made a reëxamination of the Joggins section, and visited the remarkable deposit of Albertite at Hillsborough, New Brunswick. A paper soon appeared on the Joggins section, giving a more fall exposition than any previous one of the structure and mode of formation of a coal-field. The Albert Mine was also made the subject of a paper. In the further study of the Joggins section, microscopic examinations were made of coal from all its beds, as well as of coal from other sources, the results being published in papers on the "Structures in Coal," and on the "Mode of Accumulation of Coal."

It was during the visit to the Joggins, just referred to, that the remains of Dendrerpeton Acadianum and Pupa vetusta were found. With the exception of Baphetes planiceps which Dr. Dawson had discovered the year previous at Pictou, but not described, Dendrerpeton Acadianum was the first reptile found in the coal formation of America, while Pupa vetusta was the first known Palæozoic land-snail. These discoveries were followed by the finding and describing of several other reptiles, and of the first carboniferous millipede [Xylobius sigillariæ). About this time, also, a second report on the Acadia mines was prepared, and an elaborate series of assays of coal made for the General Mining Association.

In 1855 he published the first edition of his "Acadian Geology." In 1856, though now trammeled by the arduous duties incumbent upon the principal of a university, he still continued his geological work in his native province, and prepared a description of the Silurian and Devonian rocks. During the same summer he visited Lake Superior, and wrote a paper and report on the copper-regions of Mamainse and Georgian Bay.

In the two following years he made a number of contributions to the Canadian Naturalist and the Journal of the Geological Society, and commenced the study of the Post-pliocene deposits of Canada. In 1859 his "Archaia," or studies of creation in Genesis, appeared, a work showing not only a thorough knowledge of natural history, but also considerable familiarity with the Hebrew language.

In 1860 Dr. Dawson issued a supplementary chapter to his "Acadian Geology." He also continued his work in fossil botany, and in the Post-pliocene, publishing several papers on these subjects, as well as desultory researches on such subjects as the "Flora of Mount Washington," "Indian Antiquities at Montreal," "Marine Animals of the St. Lawrence," "Earthquakes in Canada," "Classification of Animals," etc.

In 1863 he issued his "Air-Breathers of the Coal Formation," a complete account of the fossil reptiles and other land animals of the coal of Nova Scotia. This publication was followed, in 1864, by a "Handbook of Scientific Agriculture." It was in 1864, moreover, that Dr. Dawson made what may be considered as one of the most important of his scientific discoveries—that of Eozoon Canadense. Previous to this the rocks of the Laurentian age were looked upon as devoid of animal remains, and called "Azoic."

In 1865 Dr. Dawson, at the meeting of the British Association at Birmingham, gave illustrations of his researches on the "Succession of Palæozoic Floras," the "Post-pliocene of Canada," and the "Structure of Eozoon."

While in England, in 1870, Dr. Dawson lectured at the Royal Institution. He also read a paper on the "Affinities of Coal Plants" before the Geological Society, and one on the "Devonian Flora" before the Royal Society. The same year his "Handbook of Canadian Zoölogy" appeared, being followed in 1871 by a "Report on the Silurian and Devonian Flora of Canada," and a "Report on the Geological Structure of Prince Edward Island." His studies of the Devonian plants were begun as early as 1858, and Gaspé, St. John's, and Perry in Maine, were twice visited in order to collect material to aid in their pursuance.

His "Notes on the Post-pliocene of Canada" were published in 1873. From them we learn that the number of known species of Post-pliocene fossils had been raised principally by his labors from about thirty to over two hundred. We also find that Dr. Dawson is still what he has always been, a stanch opponent to the theory of general land glaciation. "The Story of the Earth and Man," issued last year, was a republication of papers published in the Leisure Hour in 1871 and 1872. A report on the "Fossil Flora of the Lower Carboniferous Coal Measures of Canada," and communications to the British Geological Society on the probable Permian age of beds overlying the coal-measures of Nova Scotia, and also occurring in Prince Edward Island, and on recent facts as to the mode of occurrence of Eozoon in the Laurentian rocks, are still more recent labors. A course of six lectures delivered in New York in the winter of 1874-'75 has been largely circulated both in America and England, under the title "Science and the Bible;" and last fall there appeared in London and New York a popular illustrated résumé of the facts relating to Eozoon and other ancient fossils, entitled "The Dawn of Life." At the Detroit meeting of the American Association, Prof. Dawson, as Vice-President of Section B, delivered an address in which he vigorously combated the doctrine of evolution.

Dr. Dawson was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1854, and of the Royal Society in 1862. He is a Master of Arts of Edinburgh, and Doctor of Laws of McGill; and is an honorary or corresponding member of many of the scientific societies on both sides of the Atlantic.