Sir William Dawson
1820 - 1899
Head of Border Trail Between US and Canada
Born John William to a Scottish bookseller and his family in Pictou Nova Scotia, William was the benefactor of learned acquaintances early in his life and later at university in Edinburgh that helped guide his geological path in life. He met Sir Charles Lyell early in his adulthood, and impressed the senior scientist with his insights into the geological correlations of the Carboniferous and Permian sequences of Atlantic Canada with those in Europe. Lyell and Dawson had an abiding loyalty and friendship throughout their lives, and Lyell remained a deep influence on Dawson’s thinking. Dawson authored what to many is still considered the best work of its kind on the geology of Atlantic Canada, ‘Acadian Geology’, first published in 1855 and updated continuously until shortly before his death. He consulted actively with colleagues in Britain and the United States, and drew parallels with the fossil and geological records on both sides of the Atlantic. His observations are summed in his acceptance speech as President of the British Academy of Sciences, published by the Geological Society of London in 1888: ‘On the Eozoic and Palaeozoic rocks of the Atlantic coast of Canada, in comparison with those of western Europe and of the interior of America’. The correlations and comparisons that he drew make all the more sense to us now with the hindsight of plate tectonic theory.
A deeply religious man, he is often wrongly labelled a creationist because of his reticence in accepting that humans evolved from primates as proposed by Darwin. He was a proponent of ‘Deep Time’, but also recognized stasis in the fossil record that would not be addressed by evolutionary theory until well into the Twentieth Century. His proposition that the fossil record extended much farther back into deep time than anyone was willing to accept hinged on his identification of stromatolite-like structures that he named Eozoon canadense. His identification has since been repudiated as inorganic structures, but ironically, stromatolites are now widely accepted as the earliest record of fossil life.
A lasting legacy of Dawson’s work is his lifelong investigation of the cliffs at Joggins, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, in 1852, he and Sir Charles Lyell discovered tetrapod remains in the standing Coal Age tree fossils, their work being described by Darwin in his Origin of Species. Dawson considered his ground-breaking work on Devonian plants both his opus and his greatest disappointment, as his treatise was refused publication by the Royal Society after the society’s rare admittance into their ranks of a ‘colonial’. Undaunted, Dawson persevered, working more closely with his less class-conscious colleagues in the United States. Dawson was recognized early on by his peers south of the 49th parallel, becoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1857. Twenty-nine years later, the British Association followed suit and elected him president, the first time that the positions would be held by the same individual. Dawson was instrumental in forming the Royal Society of Canada, was knighted in 1884, and for 38 years held the position of Principal at McGill University, Montreal, where he is widely credited with its rise to an international school of learning.
John Calder, with input from Dictionary of Canadian Biography.