Guest video: J. William Dawson, Time Traveler


J. William Dawson and the plants and animals of the Carboniferous age.
J. William Dawson and the plants and animals of the Carboniferous age.

Believe it or not, Steven Spielberg did not invent the word “paleobotany.” People have made a science out of the study of fossilized plants since the 19th century, thanks in part to Canadian John William Dawson.

He had studied under the famous British geologist Charles Lyell, who sometimes accompanied Dawson into the field. In fact, Lyell was with him when Dawson found fossils of the earliest known reptile, which Dawson christened Hylonomus lyelli.

Like many early geologists, Dawson’s first “day job” (in his case, as an educator) gave him an excuse for traveling and geologizing. He eventually became a geology professor and principal at McGill University and also did paleobotanical research for Canada’s geological survey. His reputation grew. First a fellow of the British Royal Society, he was appointed the first president of the brand-new Royal Society of Canada.

Sir William Dawson was human and so wasn’t always right. He didn’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance. And he stirred up one of the biggest controversies of 19th century earth science when he mistakenly identified a structure in metamorphic rock as a fossil.

On the whole, though, we owe thanks to this man, whom the Dictionary of Canadian Biography calls a “geologist, palaeontologist, author, educator, office holder, publisher, and editor,” for opening our eyes to the wonders of the Carboniferous world during the Age of Coal, some 300-400 million years ago.

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