George Mercer Dawson was one of the most remarkable Canadian
scientists of the 19th century. The son of Sir John William
Dawson (commonly called Principal Dawson when he became
principal of McGill University in 1855), young Dawson was born
in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on I August 1849 and died in Ottawa on 2
March 1901. He was educated by tutors, attended McGill
University for a time, then went to England to study at the
Royal School of Mines. He graduated with nearly every honour
that the School of Mines could bestow.
In 1873 Dawson accepted the position of geologist-botanist
with Her Majesty's North American Boundary Commission and
reported on the region along the 49th parallel from Lake of the
Woods to the Rockies. It was a first-rate report, an extremely
detailed, accurate, critical account of the geology and botany,
climate, potential for agriculture, and locust invasions of the
western plains. On 1 July 1875 he accepted a position with the
Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), to work initially in British
Columbia. He was named a charter member of the Royal Society of
Canada in 1882. By 1883 he was assistant director of the GSC. In
1887 he surveyed the Alaska boundary at the Yukon River and gave
his name to the Klondike town of Dawson, Yukon Territory. In
1892 he became British commissioner on Bering Sea natural
resources and, in 1896, a member of the Ethnological Survey of
Canada. He was GSC director from 1895 to 1901.
The most remarkable thing about Dawson was his physical
appearance. He was much deformed, a slightly-built hunchback who
grew no taller than 190 cm and had such weak lungs that his life
was threatened by every cold. Yet he remained a Field geologist
and explorer until 1895, establishing an almost legendary
reputation as a swift, untiring traveller and intrepid climber.
He studied the geology and natural history of southern Alberta
from 1881 to 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway company
decided to build, and then built, its line across the southern
plains. His main interest was in the coal deposits of the
Dawson was insatiably curious, his work always careful and
precise. His results have stood up well to later examination. He
seldom reached an incorrect conclusion. His powers of
observation were matched by a keen intelligence; his
generalizations showed rare clarity, imagination and
originality. His ability to form sound and lasting general
conclusions from a few reconnaissance observations and distant
scannings was unique.
He was very versatile with wide-ranging interests. He wrote
scholarly articles on geology, anthropology, botany, zoology,
and history, and compiled several handbooks on Canada. He was an
excellent public speaker, teacher and popularizer; an
above-average sketcher and water-colorist; and the best of
several poets in the Survey's history. And finally he was a
diplomat, who served Canada well on various missions.
article is extracted from Alex Johnston, Keith G. Gladwyn and L.
Gregory Ellis. Lethbridge: Its Coal Industry (Lethbridge,
Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, 1989), Occasional Paper No. 20,
The Lethbridge Historical Society. The Heritage
Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium
(of which the City of Lethbridge is the lead partner) would like
to thank the authors for permission to reprint this material.