Dr. George Dawson, Renowned Geologist and Naturalist
Dawson triumphed over childhood illness, becoming a devoted scientist, giving his heart to geology, palaeontology, anthropology and contributing to records of the sciences. He was a true Canadian rock star.
The earth sciences always captured the interest of George Mercer Dawson. As a wee child, he wandered the expansive grounds of McGill College in Montreal, exploring the natural life around him. Gathering specimens, he examined and shared them with his father, John William Dawson , the principal of McGill and world-renowned geologist and palaeontologist. George was born in 1849 in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Two years later, his father teamed with Charles Lyell to find a fossil bed in 1851 containing one of the earliest reptile skeletons at Joggins, NS.
Tuberculosis Disfigured Dawson
When he was only 12 years of age, the young Dawson was struck with tuberculosis and forced to leave school. The strain called Pott’s Disease attacked his spine, causing “a spinal curvature that deformed his upper body, stunted his growth, and left him with recurring headaches,” noted Suzanne Zeller and Gale Avrith-Wakeam in the entry on “George Mercer Dawson”. Dawson continued his education through private study until he was 18, fostering “his orderly mind, insatiable intellectual curiosity, broadly perceptive intelligence and attractive personality with strong leadership qualities.” There was no holding the brilliant man down.
Attending McGill College, Dawson published his first scientific paper in geography in 1870. He then went on to immerse himself in geological sciences at the Royal School of Mines in London, England, graduating in 1872 with distinction and several awards. Returning to Canada, Dawson taught chemistry in Quebec City’s Morrin College, and assayed coal and iron ores in Nova Scotia.
Taking a position with Her Majesty’s British North American Boundary Commission, Dawson’s duties were to mark the 49th Parallel as a baseline for future work; the position that took him from Alberta to the Rocky Mountains. Alfred Selwyn, director of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), called two years later, offering Dawson the post of geologist and botanist with the GSC. Selwyn had held open the job for the 24-year-old scientist.
Dawson Mapped Canada’s West
Dawson earned a reputation as a foremost professional. Though his small, slightly distorted stature
caused some difficulty – he was less than 5 feet in height and in pain – he overcame the hindrances through superior abilities and skill. Dawson’s mapping was extremely accurate, covering the territory by varied means: foot, canoe, train, steamboat, horse and wagon and horseback, according to in “Trailblazer: George Mercer Dawson”. Recognized for his remarkable work, Dawson was promoted to Palaeontologist and Chief Geologist of the GSC. He received his Doctorate in 1877 from Princeton University.
The written reports composed by Dawson on completion of his field journeys included not only the essential maps for future planning but also information on climate, geology, forestry and mineral resources. He also worked with native groups, advising government on what would be better policies for the aboriginals. Visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands in the late 1870s, Dawson was entranced by the Haida art and totems, the Haida people’s skills, intelligence and culture. He urged consideration of the natives during negotiations.
Glints of Gold in Klondike
As his surveying responsibilities took him into the northern regions of Canada, Dawson and his party took note of the geological significance. He located the vast coal deposits of Alberta, metals that could be mined in British Columbia and, on an expedition to the Yukon in 1887, gold in gravel deposits. The published reports with geological maps were sold out, perhaps leading some to the Klondike Gold Rush that began in earnest in 1898. The Yukon town of Dawson City was named in his honour, though Dawson never was there.
While surveying and completing geological missions, Dawson also examined the natural life around him. He contributed over three hundred animal and bird specimens to the British Museum. Noticing foreign museums were interested in the collection of Canadian artifacts, Dawson was influential in the organization of a national storehouse of items before they were long gone out of the country. A dinosaur hunter, too, Dawson discovered fossils near Alberta’s Lake of the Woods and Red Deer. “The remarkable dinosaur collections inaugurated by Dawson were to form the core of the department of vertebrate palaeontology of the present National Museum of Natural Sciences,” said Suzanne Zeller and Gale Avrith-Wakeam in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 13, 1994.
Geological Survey of Canada Director George Dawson
Dawson was promoted to Assistant Director of the GSC in 1883 and two years later was named Director in an awkward move while then-Director Alfred Selwyn was away on vacation. Though an excellent field geologist, the Director was known as difficult and argumentative, and when Selwyn returned to his Ottawa GSC office, his job had been given to Dawson. George Dawson remained Director of the GSC until 1901.
His tireless discovery of natural sciences earned George Dawson numerous honours:
- From the Royal School of Mines in England: Duke of Cornwall Scholarship, Murcheson Medal in Geology, Forbes Medal and Prize in Natural History and Palaeontology
- The Bigsby Medal in 1891 from the Geological Society of London
- Also in 1891, named “Fellow of the Royal Society of London
- Honorary doctoral degrees: Princeton University (1887), Queen’s University (1890), McGill University (1891), University of Toronto (1897)
- Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society 1897
- In 1896, Dawson was named President of the Geological Society of America
- Dawson earned a reputation as “Father of Canadian Anthropology” for his extensive studies of West Coast native groups.
Dawson Died of Bronchitis
George Dawson accomplished what would have been an extraordinary amount of work over any average lifetime and especially more so during his short life span. Along with his scientific work, he also was a poet and experienced photographer. George Mercer Dawson died in Ottawa on March 2, 1901 of bronchitis at age 52, only 15 months after the death of his father.
Dawson’s perseverance and dedication to his beloved sciences led him to the top of Canada’s science community.
This article first appeared in May 2010 on Suite101.com. (C) Susanna McLeod