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Sir John William Dawson: A Great Canadian Creationist

Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of September 1999

by Richard Peachey

November 19, 1999, will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Canada's greatest creationist scholar: Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899). Dawson was an internationally known scientist and educator who served as principal of McGill University in Montreal for almost 40 years. He also became the first president of the Royal Society of Canada, in 1884.

Born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, Dawson was the son of Scottish Presbyterian immigrants. In 1840, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study geology, returning to Nova Scotia in 1847 as "the first trained geologist in British North America."

From 1850 to 1853, Dawson served as Nova Scotia's first superintendent of education, laying the foundation for the colony's educational system. Then in 1855, he was invited to become principal of McGill College.

Under Dawson's leadership, McGill was transformed from a "cow pasture" to a world-class university. The natural and applied sciences, especially geology and paleontology, became the academic focus of the school. Dawson personally taught many of the science courses.

Stephen Leacock, the noted Canadian humourist who was also a professor at McGill, said of Dawson: "More than that of anyone or group of men, McGill is his work."

When Charles Darwin published his evolutionary theory in 1859, Dawson became his staunch opponent, arguing against Darwinism on both scientific and biblical grounds. Dawson authored over 400 books and articles, most focusing on the topic of origins.

Unfortunately Dawson, like many 19th-century creationists, accepted the "day-age" theory, reinterpreting the Genesis 1 "days" as long periods of time. In addition, he considered the flood of Noah's day to be "local" rather than a global catastrophe, as taught in Genesis chapters 6 to 8.

It appears that Dawson's thinking in those areas was influenced by the notorious anti-Christian lawyer and geologist Charles Lyell, a man who "imposed his imagination upon the evidence," according to Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Today, most adherents of creation science reject those ideas, holding instead to a "young earth" and a "worldwide flood."

Despite his shortcomings (as we might now view them), we can honour John William Dawson for his strong, scholarly stand in opposition to Darwinian evolution. As we are about to enter the next millennium, let us resolve to pray and work for the continuation of Dawson's good fight against bad science!


Michael Clarke, Canada: Portraits of Faith;
Ronald Numbers, The Creationists;
Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin.

For further reading:

"Altercation at McGill!" <>