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John William Dawson

John William Dawson: Faith, Hope, and Science

Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    John William Dawson
    Book Description:

    Dawson was born and raised in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where the many sandstone and coal formations provided fertile ground for his first scientific explorations, which culminated in the publication of Acadian Geology. He became principal of McGill University in 1855 and over the next forty years worked unceasingly to transform McGill from a "tiny, poverty-stricken provincial school" into a scientific institution of the highest rank. He was the only person to hold the presidency of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and its British equivalent. Dawson's energetic promotion of scientific institutions in Canada remains one of his most enduring legacies, particularly his role in creating the Royal Society of Canada.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6576-0
    Subjects: Geology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. x-2)
  5. 1 Dawson and the Light of Knowledge
    (pp. 3-14)

    John William Dawson, writing in 1878, vowed to stay in Quebec until there was no further hope for English Protestant education. To Dawson, education provided the first secure step on the path toward enlightenment, with the lamp of science illuminating the trail’s forward direction, as well as its occasional twists, turns, and deadends. Dawson believed that by keeping the flame of knowledge bright – fueling it by unwavering faith and an uncompromising morality – one could conquer ignorance, eradicate prejudice, and vanquish bigotry.

    Dawson possessed a missionary zeal, coupled with the conviction that knowledge and science bring real power. A...

  6. 2 Nova Scotia Roots
    (pp. 15-25)

    For John William Dawson, only two places could be called “home” during his lifetime of seventy-nine years: Pictou, Nova Scotia, where he lived until age thirty-five; and Montreal, Quebec, where he moved in 1855 to become principal of McGill University. Little did he dream when he left Nova Scotia that he would never again live in the picturesque coastal town where he was born. Yet the legacy of Pictou was to remain a strong, formative influence: beneath Dawson’s half-century of varied and numerous accomplishments in Montreal lay the deliberate design of a purposive and tenacious personality. The regularity with which...

  7. 3 So Many “Opportunities of doing good”
    (pp. 26-37)

    Nearly a decade his junior, Margaret Ann Young Mercer (a distant cousin and daughter of a lace merchant) was but a child when she first met William in Edinburgh, apparently in 1841. Margaret’s parents were delighted to have their fourth, and by much the youngest, daughter kept “occupied” for afternoons on end, during this and Dawson’s subsequent visit to Edinburgh. They assumed that she would be educated and enlightened by William’s conversation. But when he turned out to be a suitor intent on marriage, his relationship with Margaret’s parents soured.²

    Perhaps it was fortunate for the future of their relationship...

  8. 4 A Real Horse Race
    (pp. 38-52)

    Rambles through the Nova Scotia countryside and his special friendship with Charles Lyell developed Dawson’s geological sensitivity, whetting his appetite for knowledge. The Pictou Academy had given him an outstanding secondary education grounded in works of the Scottish enlightenment. Still, he sought to advance his scientific understanding in a more formal way. On two occasions during the 1840s, Dawson travelled to the University of Edinburgh, an institution well known in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia, both for its distinguished alumni and its faculty members’ widespread publications. Edinburgh had emerged by this time as one of the few places in Great Britain where...

  9. 5 “Good results in store”
    (pp. 53-72)

    News of his defeat in Edinburgh reached Dawson in the autumn of 1855, just as he was about to embark for the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Glasgow. In Halifax, awaiting the departure of the steamer for Liverpool, Dawson received the telegram that “dashed all my hopes.”² But at virtually the same moment, word came that he had been offered the principalship of the University of McGill College in Montreal, upon the recommendation of Sir Edmund Head.³ As Dawson relates in his autobiography, he appeared in Scotland, much to his own surprise, not as “a candidate...

  10. 6 “Stand by and grumble”
    (pp. 73-90)

    However successfully Dawson promoted a vision of McGill University where academic excellence was grounded upon non-sectarian cooperation, he was faced with a fundamental paradox: the university functioned as an enclave of English Protestant higher learning, but was situated within the milieu of Roman Catholic, French-speaking Quebec. This fact of life did not usually hinder Dawson in promoting the expansion of McGill, since its potential isolation from provincial and municipal mainstreams proved a drawing card for the financial support of Scots Presbyterian entrepreneurs such as Peter Redpath. Yet whenever Dawson wanted or needed to broaden his network of funding, this paradox...

  11. 7 “None knew him but to love him”
    (pp. 91-106)

    When Dawson declined Princeton’s call, he cited the brighter prospects that Canada held for his children’s future. This implies that he saw his own life in terms of sacrifice for his children; indeed, this attitude is explicitly conveyed elsewhere in Dawson’s papers. Such a conclusion is only partially true, however, for it tends to distort the relationship between father and offspring. Although Dawson strove to advance his children’s interests as he understood them, he never hesitated to bring their talents to bear on his own activities. His strong convictions, unwavering sense of purpose, and zealous prosecution of his responsibilities exacted...

  12. 8 “One of the deepest mortifications of my scientific life”
    (pp. 107-118)

    Dawson remained ever conscious of the huge toll that his educational and administrative work exacted upon his scientific creativity. His commitments to McGill and his involvement with other institutions meant that all his writing and research had to be done when he could steal away a few hours from his myriad responsibilities. Even summer holidays at Métis proved to be a mixed blessing: they brought precious leisure time, but also required him to work far from his collection of specimens and monographs. Acutely aware of how his work depended upon “desultory snatches of time,” Dawson complained that “nothing has been...

  13. 9 A Mission of Popularization
    (pp. 119-135)

    The poor reception to Dawson’s work on Devonian plants, although it naturally diminished his enthusiasm for this line of research, served to rekindle his interest in the popularization of science. He later viewed the affair as an important lesson that caused him to take a stand against “the false philosophies of the day.” In retrospect, he was to see his increasingly strong commitment to popularization over the years as perhaps having “crippled my scientific reputation.” But in his opinion, it possessed the more important benefit of compelling him “to do much for the moral and spiritual good of man.”¹


  14. 10 “A quiet middle course”
    (pp. 136-148)

    Dawson’s active and sustained denunciation of Darwinian evolution began to serve as amodus operandi. He came to embrace and promulgate – or, alternatively, to reject and denounce – varied scientific theories or hypotheses with marked vehemence, and maintained these positions for decades. His scientific explanations almost acquired the characteristics of religious doctrines: rather than being presented coolly and dispassionately (as he had insisted on as a young geologist), they instead required either a zealous defense or a vitriolic renunciation.

    At times, Dawson’s work on certain paleontological fragments or geological formations could be used to buttress an anti-evolutionary stance. Certainly...

  15. 11 Nova Scotia Revisited
    (pp. 149-164)

    Dawson’s scientific agenda was full with such widely ranging topics as Devonian plants, glacial and Post-Pliocene geology, andEozoön. He spent countless hours, as well, on science administration and popularization. In addition, his keen interest in Nova Scotia geology, particularly in the fossils and mineralogical resources of the Carboniferous formation, continued virtually unabated over his years in Montreal.

    Contrary to the controversy evoked by much of his other scientific work, there was no disputing the quality and importance of his contributions in this last area.¹ By the mid-1870s, the Dawson family had built a summer home (“Birkenshaw”) at Little Métis,...

  16. 12 “Mighty trees from small saplings grow”
    (pp. 165-179)

    If Nova Scotians tended to be indifferent toward commercial and financial matters, Montrealers could be faulted for embracing these concerns to the exclusion of higher culture. Such was the conclusion of Samuel Butler when he visited Montreal in the 18708. His “Psalm of Montreal” commemorates this attitude, using the collections of the Natural History Society of Montreal as an instructive example. In his poem, Butler bemoans the banishment of a classical sculpture of theDiscobolus, or Discus Thrower, to a room containing “all manner of skins, plants, snakes, [and] insects.” The verse reconstructs a conversation between Butler and the society’s...

  17. 13 Putting Montreal on the Scientific Map
    (pp. 180-189)

    Even before the Natural History Society of Montreal’s invitation was tendered at the Boston meeting of the aaas in 1880, permanent secretary Frederick Ward Putnam was excitedly writing to Dawson. Sure that the invitation would be accepted – so many aaas meetings had recently been convened in the southern and western United States that it was now time for a series of eastern venues – he recalled with pleasure the last Montreal meeting, where he had been the youngest member in attendance.² Originally Dawson had thought to extend the invitation for 1881; a postponement to 1882, however, would permit the...

  18. 14 Toward International Science
    (pp. 190-203)

    Participating in the meetings of the American and British associations for the advancement of science brought an obvious deficiency to Dawson’s mind: Canada possessed no national scientific organization. Even when arrangements for the aaas meeting were just getting underway in Montreal, Dawson suggested to the governor-general, the Marquis of Lorne, that they might “discuss the feasibility of our having a Canadian Association,” along the lines of the American organization. Dawson imagined, however, that Lorne, who had already instigated the establishment of a Canadian Academy of Arts, was contemplating “a distinct sort of body” with a more elitist structure than the...

  19. 15 No More Toil
    (pp. 204-212)

    The MontrealGazettedescribed Dawson’s funeral, held on 21 November 1899, as “one of the most numerously attended Montreal has ever seen.” The old library of the central building on McGill campus was transformed into a mortuary, with the pastor of the Stanley Street Presbyterian Church, where Dawson had been an active parishioner, presiding over the service. The hearse that carried the coffin to the Dawson plot in Mount Royal Cemetery threaded its way through the university grounds, subsequently proceeding down avenues lined with undergraduates paying their last respects.² After almost half a century of good works in McGill and...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 213-268)
  21. Index
    (pp. 269-274)