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On October 13, 1820, geologist and paleontologist Sir John William Dawson was born in Nova Scotia. His interest in geology involved him in a life of fossil hunting. As a youngster he built up an assortment of shale layer fossils and traded with others to build up his collection.

At University of Edinburgh, he interrupted his studies to return home to support himself undertaking field explorations for coal mining enterprises. When Charles Lyell, the foremost geologist of the day, visited Nova Scotia, Dawson acted as his guide around its coal deposits. When Dawson returned to university in Edinburgh, he began to publish papers through the Geological Society (London). He also wrote a geography and natural history handbook of Nova Scotia for the province’s schools. By the time he returned home, Dawson was an exploration geologist but soon persuaded to become the province’s first superintendent of education. Travelling on the job would afford him more fossil searches!

When Lyell returned to Nova Scotia, the two set off for the province’s petrified forest at Joggins, where they made exciting new fossil finds of rare ancient life forms. Over the rest of his life, Dawson returned to this field, expanding the prehistoric site, revealing new information about its plants, discovering new animal fossils, and publishing his finds. His work on the origins of coal from peat decided Darwin on Dawson’s view. Study at Joggins continues to this day and represents one of the most significant single collections of Paleozoic life in the world. Dawson’s Air-Breathers Of The Coal Period remains a classic work for paleontologists.

Dawson published well over 300 articles, papers, and books throughout his life. One of these, The Geology of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, or, Acadian Geology gives a fuller sense of Dawson’s knowledge of his Maritimes home. “Acadian Geology” covers their economic geology and stratigraphic paleontology.

Stepping outside Nova Scotia, Dawson accepted principalship of McGill College in Montreal. Within the decade, he had revamped the campus, built a strong core faculty, and launched McGill into its coming role as one of the world’s great universities. Dawson’s continued publications in geology and paleontology, his organizations of and attendance at international academic meetings, continued McGill’s growth as financial donations began to build.

He was awarded the Lyell Medal, Geological Society of London, and, at the request of Canada’s Governor-General, Dawson became a co-founder and first president of the Royal Society of Canada. Today, the RSC awards the Sir John William Dawson Medal to an individual who has made important and sustained contributions in at least two different fields of endeavour.

The Sir John William Dawson Medal awarded by the Awards and Medals Committee of the Royal Society of Canada.
The Sir John William Dawson Medal awarded by the Awards and Medals Committee of the Royal Society of Canada.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage