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Born: Pictou, NS
Lifespan: 1820- 1899

Occupation: First principal of McGill University.

Literacy Legacy: Wrote Acadian Geology and over 150 scientific articles.

Greatest Discovery: Bones of one of the oldest known reptiles, Hylonomus lyelli

Sir John William Dawson

John William Dawson (1820-1899) was born to Scottish parents in the village of Pictou, NS, and it was there that he first developed a love for the natural world. One day, he and some other schoolboys were scraping rocks into homemade pencils when young William noticed on his stone "a delicate tracing in black, of a leaf like that of a fern". Exploring further, "I found more fragments of leaves and soon had a little collection of them laid out on the shelf of a cupboard in which I kept my childish treasures". So began Dawson's life-long passion. He went on to write over 150 scientific articles, became the first Principal of McGill University, and was later knighted.

In 1841, Dawson was introduced to Sir Charles Lyell, the most influential of all Victorian geologists and author of the classic Principles of Geology. Lyell had come to visit the coal mines of Pictou during his first trip to North America. Eleven years later, Lyell returned, and he and Dawson struck out for the sea cliffs of Joggins, NS, where the pair made one of the most famous fossil discoveries in paleontology.

In the stony cast of a once-hollow fossil tree, recently fallen from the cliff, they found the jumbled bones of what was until recently the oldest known reptile. Dawson later named this animal Hylonomus lyelli, meaning "Lyell's wood mouse". The puzzle of how a reptile skeleton could become fossilized in a once-hollow tree trunk continues to intrigue paleontologists.

From Joggins and elsewhere in the Maritimes (which Dawson nostalgically called Acadia) he made many other important discoveries of fossil life, great and small. These included fossil plants, trackways of lowly invertebrates, footprints, skeletons of reptiles and amphibians, millipedes and the earliest land snails. He had an uncanny ability to understand the ancient environments in which rocks had formed and to decipher their correct ages. Dawson died in 1899, but his greatest legacy is still with us his classic book Acadian Geology, published in five editions from 1855 to 1892.

From The Last Billion Years [a book by the Atlantic Geoscience Society at the Geological Survey of Canada (Atlantic)]

    Last Modified: 2004-12-10