Principal Dawson's career spanned the transformation of science from a fixed curriculum of "natural philosophy" to an array of professional disciplines focused on research. Like his predecessors, he wrote on subjects from farming to philanthropy, but he also earned a solid reputation as a geologist, equally at home on a cliff, chipping out samples, or in his study, synthesizing and interpreting the processes of geological time. He was the leading expert of his day on early FOSSIL PLANTS and took special pride in his identification as a coral of Eozoon canadense, thought to be the oldest nonplant fossil known: always controversial, it was not for another 50 years that Eozoon was shown to be a rare crystal formation rather than a living animal.
As well as a modernist in science and education (eg, admitting women to McGill), Dawson was a devout Christian and the leading anti-Darwinist of the late Victorian period. As a geologist, he knew the Earth was very old (100 million years and perhaps older); but he could not see, from his direct knowledge of the fossil evidence, that new species had actually evolved out of earlier ones. Many of his books were technical criticisms of Darwinism and attempts to reconcile up-to-date science with the Christian scriptural tradition. Since the theory of EVOLUTION lacked any mechanical explanation until the science of GENETICS appeared in the 20th century, Dawson's being wrong does not diminish his historical importance. The remoteness of Canada and McGill's newness did not prevent Dawson's leading one faction in the greatest scientific controversy of his day. His international reputation added strength to his mission to establish in Canada the institutions of up-to-date science: higher degrees, lifelong research and publication of research results.
Author DONALD J.C. PHILLIPSON
Links to Other Sites
Sir John William Dawson
A profile of the 19th century Canadian scientist J W Dawson. From Library and Archives Canada.