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James Davidson, Educator

Davidson, James
The first schoolmaster was James Davidson, a native of Edinburgh. He came to Pictou about 1772, and taught school at Lyon's Brook. He returned to Truro, in 1776, and spent the rest of his days there. The first teacher in Pictou town was Peter Grant, who came from Halifax in 1793; he opened a school and taught for six years. S. L. Newcomb took up the work in 1802. He married the daughter of Matthew Harris, and had a family of children, several of whose names became well known in later years. George Glennie, a graduate of Aberdeen College, succeeded him. He was an excellent teacher and scholar, and left his impress upon the youth of that generation.

Dawson, J. W. Sir
First upon the list of Pictou's eminent educators and College presidents, stands the name of Sir J. W. Dawson, LL. D., F. R. S. His life work extended over a long period of years, and he is the most widely known of all Canadian educationists and scientists. John William Dawson was born at Pictou, on the 13th of October, 1820. While at school in Pictou he developed a love for natural science, inherited from his father, James Dawson; and made a large collection of fossils from the coal measures so well exposed in the County. When only sixteen years of age, and still attending the Pictou Academy, he read before the local Natural History Society his first paper "On the Structure and History of the Earth." He graduated from the University of Edinburgh, at the age of twenty-two; and returned to Nova Scotia in company with Sir Charles Lyell who began his geological explorations in the Province in 1842. Mr. Dawson was then appointed to direct a geological survey of the coal fields.

In 1850 he became the first Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia; and did the pioneer work which resulted in the founding of the Provincial Normal School in Truro, in 1854, and the passing of the Free School Act of 1864. In 1855, he was appointed to the Principal-ship of the McGill University, Montreal. McGill rapidly developed under his guidance. He gave course of lectures in chemistry, botany, zoology and geology.

His "Acadian Geology" was published in 1855. But from 1842 up to that event, no less than thirty-two papers were published by him, including three Annual Education Reports, 1851-3, geography and a text book on Agriculture. From this time his published works increased in number, until, up to 1901, his bibliography numbered 551 titles of papers, pamphlets and books. His earlier papers on geological subjects had reference chiefly to the coal formation of Nova Scotia; and to his discoveries of the earliest known reptiles of that age. He also had the opportunity of studying along the St. Lawrence, the earliest Geological deposits, and this, with the investigation of Indian remains before the advent of the white man in Canada, gave him a broad outlook on the question of primitive man in relation to geology. So he was enabled to express in his books, sound and well founded views regarding primitive man and his first surroundings.

Dawson's influence great as it was in field of Education swept yet a broader horizon in the field of letters. As a Bible student and expositor, Sir William stood high. He ploughed deep in the books of Holy Writ; and subjected those writings to the same keen, critical analysis to which he referred various other problems in the scientific world. He brought out many hidden truths from the Word of God, which had been hitherto obscure. "Egypt and the Holy Land, their geology and natural resources." "Eden Lost and Won," "Archaia," "The Mosaic Cosmogony," "Modern Science in Bible Lands," "The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science," form part of a series of writings of an apologetic character, which in his day, Sir William Dawson deemed necessary to combat certain views that were thrust upon the more or less observant and thinking world, regarding the origin of man as well as of other species living upon this planet.

As a writer, who sought to present in popular form the results of geological science to a larger audience than greeted him on the college benches, he was eminently successful. Among the most conspicuous of his popular writings, in which the relations existing between science and revelation usually formed a portion of his theme, the following may be mentioned; "The Story of the Earth and Man," "Facts and Fancies in Modern Science," "Fossil Men and their Modern Representatives," "Modern Ideas of Evolution," "The Meeting Place of Geology and History." The many editions through which these various writings have passed, and their ready sale on both sides of the Atlantic, testify to their popularity. In the English speaking world his name became a household word, and a letter of introduction from him was a passport throughout Europe.

The phenomenal expansion of McGill University, as well as the character of his own scientific work, made him the recipient of honor after honor. In 1854 he was made a Fellow of the Geological Society; in 1862, a Fellow of the Royal Society; in 1881 a C. M. G.; in 1882 the first President of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1884 he received the honor of Knighthood from Queen Victoria. He was a "man of quiet geniality, gentle and courtly in manner, but decided in opinion and firm in action. The preeminent note of his character was sincerity and singleness of purpose." In 1847 he married Margaret, daughter of George Mercer of Edinburgh. He had five children, the eldest being late George M. Dawson, C. M. G., the second son, William B. Dawson, D. Sc., Ottawa, Can. Dr. Rankine Dawson, the youngest of the three sons, is now practicing medicine in London, England. The two daughters are Mrs. J. B. Harrington, wife of the Professor of Chemistry at McGill University, and Mrs. Pope T. Atkin of Birkenhead, England.

Sir Wm. Dawson was a Presbyterian of an advanced type when his "Archaia" was published, in 1860, describing the evolutionary origin of the world as in agreement with the account in Genesis. But his non-acceptance of the evolutionary development of man left him among conservative theologians at the time of his death. He died at Montreal, on the 18th of November, 1899, in the eightieth year of his age, full of honors as of days, with the most distinguished record as a scientist of any Canadian, past or present. In no part of Canada has the career of Sir Wm. Dawson been more closely followed than in the Provinces by the sea. Here he was born; here he was inspired with the spirit of scientific research. His earliest educational and scientific efforts were made here; here were laid the foundations of his subsequent great achievements. And, while he left Pictou for wider fields of labor, he never forgot his native place. His life will continue to be an inspiration to many, as the stream of years flows on.

The following characteristic incident is well worth recording here: Over sixty years ago, a college student was appointed to survey a tract of "crown land" in eastern Nova Scotia, a barren region about fifty miles in length and thirty in width, which at that time had within its bounds just twenty-six persons. The whole district was strewn with granite boulders; had no roads, and was traversable only on foot or horse back. There was no likelihood that the young surveyors' measurements would ever be tested, or his lines run over again, for the soil was poor, the timber small and unmarketable. But that student handled his chain and compass as under the eye of omniscience.

Some forty years afterward, gold was discovered there; the "leads" were vertical, and fortunes depended upon the accuracy of the student's work. Experts were sent by the Government to re-survey the whole territory. They could not find a single flaw in his work. Peter Grant, a Halifax merchant, a stockholder in one of the mining companies said, that after all their tracing and. computing the Government's most accurate surveyor gave at last the full mead of praise to the college student; and, in every instance pronounced his lines exact. That young student was none other than he who was afterwards the distinguished Sir William Dawson.

Pictonians at Home and Abroad, 1914

 

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