Papers of Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-192
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      circa 85 letters, 1 separate item printed matter.
  • Location
      Dk.7.57; Gen. 524/1; Gen. 526/4; Gen. 109 (Dawson)

Scope and Content

The collection consist largely of correspondence and includes: letters to Sir Archibald Geikie, 1880-1896 at Gen. 526/4; letter to Sir Joseph Prestwich, 1880; a substantial number of letters to Sir Charles Lyell, 1842-1875, and newspaper reports of lectures delivered in Montreal, 1855, in the Lyell Collection, Gen. 108 onwards; letter to Sir A. C. Ramsay, 1875, at Gen. 524/1; and a programme for the unveiling of a monument to Dawson in Pictou, 1957.

Administrative / Biographical History

The geologist and naturalist John William Dawson was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on 13 October 1820. His parents had come to Nova Scotia from Scotland, his father from Aberdeenshire and his mother from Stirlingshire. He was educated at the Academy in Pictou and then studied at Edinburgh University during the winters 1841-1842 and 1846-1847. He had been interested in collecting fossils even as a boy, and when he settled into educational work as an adult he undertook a geological survey of Nova Scotia and the study of the natural history of his home province and New Brunswick. In 1842 he accompanied the geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) to the South Joggins district of Nova Scotia, returning there again with Lyell ten years later. The result of this work was Acadian geology: the geological structure, organic remains, mineral resources of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (1855). Meanwhile, in 1850, Dawson had been appointed Superintendent of Education in Nova Scotia, and then in 1855 he became both Professor of Geology and Principal of McGill University. He was made a Companion of St. Michael and St. George in 1881 and was knighted in 1884. He was the first President of the Royal Society of Canada, 1886, and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1886. Dawson retired from McGill in 1893. In addition to the work on the geology of the Canadian Maritimes, other publications include Handbook of Canadian zoology (1871), Fossil men and their American analogues (1880), Handbook of Canadian geology (1889), The ice age in Canada (1894), and Salient points in the science of the earth (1894). Sir John William Dawson died on 19 November 1899. His son, Dr. George Mercer Dawson, C.M.G. (1849-1901) was for a time Director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letters to Geikie, Prestwich, and Ramsay, transferred with others from Geology Dept., December 1960, Accession no. E60.33.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 22. Supplement. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909. (2) Cooper, Thompson. Men of the time: a dictionary of contemporaries. Revised. 9th edition. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875. (3) Who was who. A companion to Who's who.... London: A. and C. Black, 1920.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show a reference to Dawson (check the Indexes for more details) in the form of: a mention in a letter of Sir Charles Lyell to the Lord Advocate, at Gen. 1733/68. The Indexes also show references to his son, George Mercer Dawson. In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: drawings and maps, Geological Society of London, see Bridson, Natural history MS resources 1980; official papers, McGill University, McLennan Library, NRA 20434 Murray; and, letters to Sir George Stokes, 1867-1891, Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Ref. Add 7342, 7656 NRA 20700 Stokes.