John William Dawson

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Sir John William Dawson

Portrait of John William Dawson.jpg
Born(1820-10-13)13 October 1820
Died19 November 1899(1899-11-19) (aged 79)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
Known forEozoon canadense; Hylonomus
AwardsLyell Medal (1881)
Scientific career
InstitutionsMcGill University
InfluencesRobert Jameson
InfluencedSalem Bland
Author abbrev. (botany)Dawson

Sir John William Dawson CMG FRS FRSE FRSC FGS (1820–1899) was a Canadian geologist and university administrator.[1]

Life and work[edit]

John William Dawson was born on 13 October 1820 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where he attended and graduated from Pictou Academy. Of Scottish descent, Dawson attended the University of Edinburgh to complete his education, and graduated in 1842, having gained a knowledge of geology and natural history from Robert Jameson.

Dawson returned to Nova Scotia in 1842, accompanying Sir Charles Lyell on his first visit to that territory. Dawson was subsequently appointed as Nova Scotia's first superintendent of education. Holding the post from 1850 to 1853, he was an energetic reformer of school design, teacher education and curriculum. Influenced by the American educator Henry Barnard, Dawson published a pamphlet titled, "School Architecture; abridged from Barnard's School Architecture" in 1850. One of the many schools built to his design, the Mount Hanley Schoolhouse still survives today, including the "Dawson Desks" named after him. Dawson's travels as school superintendent allowed him to deepen his geological studies, as he visited and studied geological sites across the region, leading to publication of his classic "Acadian Geology" (1855 and subsequent editions). He entered zealously into the geology of Canada, making a special study of the fossil forests of the coal-measures of Joggins, Nova Scotia, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the course of his second exploration of the cliffs with Charles Lyell in 1852, he discovered the remains of a tetrapod named Dendrerpeton entombed within a fossil tree. Over the years, he continued his exploration of the fossil trees, eventually unearthing the oldest known reptile in the history of life, which he named Hylonomus lyelli in honour of his mentor.[2]

From 1855 to 1893 he was professor of geology and principal of McGill University in Montreal, an institution which under his influence attained a high reputation. In 1859 he published a seminal paper describing the first fossil plant found in rocks of Devonian origin. Although his discovery did not have the impact that might have been expected at the time,[3] he is now considered one of the founders of the science of palaeobotany. He later described the fossil plants of the Silurian, Devonian and Carboniferous rocks of Canada for the Geological Survey of Canada (1871–1873). He was elected FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) in 1862. When the Royal Society of Canada was created 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, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1882,[4][5] and president of the Geological Society of America in 1893[6].

Sir William Dawson's name is especially associated with Eozoon canadense, which in 1865 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 disproven, the so-called organism being now regarded as a mineral structure.

He was appointed CMG in 1881, and was knighted in 1884. In 1882, while looking to fill the vacancy left at McGill by the death of botanist James Barnston, Dawson contacted Asa Gray of Harvard University for recommendations. Gray suggested his former assistant David P. Penhallow, who Dawson accepted as a lecturer.[7]

He died in Montreal, 19 November 1899, and was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery. Lady Dawson served as President of the Ladies' Bible Association. Lady Dawson cofounded the Ladies' Educational Institute of Montreal with Mrs. John Molson and others. Lord and Lady Dawson had several sons. The eldest, George Mercer Dawson, served as Director of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1895.

He is interred in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Quebec, and is the namesake for Dawson College. The mineral dawsonite, which was discovered during the building of the Redpath Museum with which he was intimately related, is named in his honour.[8]


As a Christian, Dawson spoke against Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and came to write The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science (1877) and Facts and Fancies in Modern Science: Studies of the Relations of Science to Prevalent Speculations and Religious Belief (1882) where he discussed how science and religion (particularly Christian Revelation) were complementary in his view.[9] In his books on geological subjects he maintained a distinctly theological attitude, refusing the theory of human evolution from brute ancestors, and holding that the human species only made its appearance on this earth within quite recent times. Like Arnold Henry Guyot, Hugh Miller, and James Dwight Dana, he defended day-age creationism.[10]

Dawson wrote many religious articles. He attacked evolution in the last two chapters of his book, The Story of the Earth and Man.[11]


Besides many memoirs in the Transactions of learned societies, he published several books:


Lady Margaret Dawson by William Notman

John William Dawson married Margaret A. Y. Mercer, daughter of G. Mercer, of Edinburgh, Scotland in March 1847. The couple lived at 293 University Street, Montreal. One of John's sons, George Mercer Dawson (1849–1901), became a well known and respected scientist and geologist in his own right.


  1. ^ "DAWSON, Sir JOHN WILLIAM". Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  2. ^ Calder, John (2012), "The Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Coal Age Galápagos", Province of Nova Scotia, 96 pp. ISBN 978-1-55457-473-5
  3. ^ Taylor, T.N.; Taylor, E.L. & Krings, M. (2009). Paleobotany, The Biology and Evolution of Fossil Plants (2nd ed.). Amsterdam; Boston: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-373972-8., p. 225ff.
  4. ^ "The American Association for the Advancement of Science". Nature. 26: 505. 21 September 1882.
  5. ^ Dawson, J. W. (6 September 1883). "Some unsolved problems in geology". Nature. 28: 449–455. (address of retiring AAAS president)
  6. ^ Eckel, Edwin, 1982, GSA Memoir 155, The Geological Society of America — Life History of a Learned Society, ISBN 0-8137-1155-X.
  7. ^ Dictionary of Canadian biography, David Penhallow entry
  8. ^ Harrington, B.J. (1874). "Notes on dawsonite, a new carbonate". The Canadian Naturalist and Quarterly Journal of Science. 7: 305–309.
  9. ^ Sheets-Pyenson, Susan (1996), John William Dawson: Faith, Hope and Science, McGill-Queen's Press MQUP. pp. 123–126.
  10. ^ Randy Moore, Mark Decker, Sehoya Cotner (2010). Chronology of the Evolution-creationism Controversy. ABC-CLIO. p. 69.
  11. ^ McIver, Thomas Allen. (1989). Creationism: Intellectual Origins, Cultural Context, and Theoretical Diversity. University of California, Los Angeles.
  12. ^ IPNI.  Dawson.


Further reading[edit]

Clark, T.H. (1970–1980). "Dawson, John William". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 3. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 607–609. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Edmund Allen Meredith
Principal of McGill University
Succeeded by
William Peterson
Professional and academic associations
New institution President of the Royal Society of Canada
Succeeded by
Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau
Preceded by
Grove Karl Gilbert
President of the Geological Society of America
Succeeded by
Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin