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Sir John William Dawson: Dedicated to Quality Education

For the week of Monday October 10, 2011

On October 13, 1820, John William Dawson was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Although recognized world-wide for his talents as a palaeontologist and geologist, education was undoubtedly Dawson’s passion. He was principal of McGill University for almost forty years (1855-93), playing a major role in its transition from provincial college to prestigious university.

Sir J. William Dawson, Montreal,
QC, 1874 / William Notman

© McCord Museum, I-99564

After meeting Charles Lyell, the father of geology, in 1842, Dawson was inspired to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Returning to Canada in 1847, the enthusiastic and talented geologist became interested in the problems of education in rural areas. Dawson was then offered the chance to be Nova Scotia’s first Superintendent of Education, a position he held until 1852. As superintendent, Dawson prompted the formation of teachers’ associations, standard curriculum and teachers’ institutes, where educators could receive badly needed local training. In addition, he advanced the teaching of science in Nova Scotia, even writing textbooks when none were available!

Dawson was also an incredible force for change at McGill University, though he almost became a professor at the University of Edinburgh instead! Had another scientist not lobbied for the position, Dawson would never have set foot on McGill’s campus. But in 1855, he accepted the presidency of McGill without ever having been to Montréal. Upon arriving as McGill’s fifth president, he was greeted by “two blocks of unfinished and ... ruinous buildings, standing amid a wilderness of excavators’ and masons’ rubbish, overgrown with weeds and bushes.”

A hockey game at McGill University in 1884
© Alexander Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / C-0081683
Dawson showed great determination and dedication in obtaining funding for McGill. A decade after he became president, McGill had gone from unfinished buildings with an enrolment of 15 students in its arts program, to a flourishing and prestigious institution, attended by more than a thousand undergraduates and recognized across eastern North America. Part of this success was due to Dawson’s construction and administration of the McGill Normal School, a teacher’s college which ensured a supply of educators for the university. Another important innovation was the 1882 opening of the Peter Redpath Museum of Natural History, a building which still serves as a highlight of McGill’s downtown campus.

Dawson was also the force behind the foundation of the Royal Society of Canada, bringing together both English- and French-speaking intellectuals in the fields of art, literature and science, as the Royal Society’s first president in 1882. Two years later, on September 11, 1884, Dawson was knighted for his contributions to science and The Royal Societies of Canada and Great Britain.

Sir John William Dawson, for whom McGill’s Dawson Hall is named, was designated a National Historic Person in 1943 because of his success as a university administrator, geologist and palaeontologist.

Celebrate Parks Canada’s centennial with us by visiting this month’s theme section on Learning Experiences! For more information about Canadian universities and science, please visit: The University of Ottawa: Uniting Diverse Students Since 1848, The Queen’s University, Birth of Davidson Black, Wilder Penfield: Exploring the Human Brain, The Father of Canadian Biochemistry is Born!, “All Science is Either Physics or Stamp Collecting” and “Them Dry Bones...” in the This Week in History archives.

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