File 107 - Biographical sketches

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Biographical sketches

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CA MUA MG 1022-6-107

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  • 1876-1903 (Creation)
    Dawson, George Mercer, 1849-1901

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The geologist and explorer George Mercer Dawson was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, and moved to Montréal in 1855 when his father, John William Dawson, became Principal of McGill. At the age of eleven, he contracted an illness which resulted in permanent spinal deformity and the stunting of his growth, but he vigorously resisted the role of invalid and completed his education under private tuition.

After a year as a partial student at McGill, he enrolled in the Royal School of Mines, London, whence he graduated in 1872 with highest honours and the title of Associate. After a brief period surveying mines in Nova Scotia and teaching chemistry at Morrin College, Québec, he was appointed geologist and botanist to the British North American Boundary Commission, and made his first surveying trip to the Canadian West.

His travels were even more extensive after 1875, when he became geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada; they resulted in numerous published reports and articles, primarily on the mineral resources of the Prairies, northern British Columbia and the Yukon, but also on the botany, geography, and ethnography of this region.

In 1883, he became assistant-director and, in 1895, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, which he headed until his death in 1901. He assisted in negotiating treaties affecting natural resources, notably as Commissioner in the Bering Sea seal inquiry of 1891-92, for which work he was awarded the C.M.G. A member of numerous scientific associations, Dawson was President of the Royal Society of Canada in 1893.

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Bernard James Harrington, sometimes known as B.J., was born in 1848 in Saint Andrew’s (Saint-Andre-Est), Lower Canada, to which his great grandfather had immigrated from Massachusetts in 1805 and helped establish the first Canadian paper mill there. Poor eyesight meant that most of his early education was under private teachers, but he entered McGill University and graduated from there with a B.A. in Natural Science with first class honours in 1869 and obtained a doctorate in mineralogy with distinction from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1871, apparently the first Canadian to get a PhD from there. That summer he helped John William Dawson, McGill’s principal, with research on Prince Edward Island and then began his 36-year teaching career at McGill by lecturing in chemistry, mineralogy, and assaying. After also spending some time in Britain visiting smelting works in chief mining and manufacturing centres, he added metallurgy to the subjects he taught. In 1872, in addition to his teaching load, he was appointed as chemist and mineralogist to the Geological Survey of Canada (conveniently based in Montreal), a post he held till 1879. He received the David Greenshields chair of chemistry and mineralogy at McGill in 1883. Among his other responsibilities were as president of the Natural History Society of Montreal, and as president of the chemistry and physics section of the Royal Society of Canada in 1890. He is the author of a biography of Sir William E. Logan, the first director of the Canadian Geological Survey, and many scientific publications.

As for his personal life, in 1876, he married Anna Lois Dawson, daughter of McGill’s principal, and began a family, eventually to include nine children (Eric, Edith, William, Bernard, Ruth, Clare, Constance, Conrad and Lois), although two (Eric and Edith) died before adulthood. His modest salary as a professor meant that the family lived simply but with much help from the generosity of his father-in-law, who built them a house next to the campus in Walbrae Place where they lived until 1893 when Dawson bought a house at 293 University (now 3641) for himself and bought them another house next door. He also bought them a cottage next to Birkenshaw, his summer home in Little Metis.

Harrington was a lover of music, for which he had some talent: he was an editor and composer in the production of the McGill College Song Book (1885). His portrait by Robert Harris hangs in the MacDonald Chemistry Building, of which he was the first director from its opening in 1898 until his death in 1907.

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Biographical history

Henri-Marc Ami (or Henry Mark Ami) had two careers — as geologist and archaeologist. Biographers disagree on whether he was born in Geneva, Switzerland or Belle-Rivière, Quebec, the son of a Swiss Protestant pastor who emigrated to Canada. Ami studied under J. W. Dawson at McGill where he earned his B.A. in 1882 and M.A. in 1885. He received one DSc. from Queens University in 1892, and another from McGill in 1902.
He became a member of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1882 and worked with them until 1911. From 1899 to 1901 he was president of the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club and editor of their journal, the Ottawa Naturalist, from 1895 to 1900. He belonged to numerous learned societies, including the Royal Society of Canada; he also was a member of the Royal Geological Society of London, Royal Astronomical Society, as well as various anthropological and archaeological societies. His research produced more than 200 titles total, including a brief biographical sketch of Dawson that went through fifteen English editions between 1900 and 2018. Among his most notable works are “Synopsis of Geology in Canada” (1891) and “Synopsis of the Geology of Montreal” (1896).
His life changed emphasis in 1911 when he resigned from the Geological Survey and moved to France where he began a new career in prehistoric studies, mainly based in the Dordogne. It was there that he founded the École Canadienne de Préhistoire, jointly funded by the French government and the Royal Society of Canada. He began initial excavations at Combe-Capelle where he worked from 1926 to his death in Menton, France, in 1931.

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File includes review "American Anthropologist" (section on George Mercer Dawson, page 159-163), including photograph; notes, memorandum with references to G. M.Dawson at the Associate Royal School of Mines, 1876; and the booklet "George Mercer Dawson by Prof. B. J.Harrington and Dr. H. M. Ami, 1902."

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  • Box: M-1022-81