Sir John William Dawson (October 30, 1820 – November 20, 1899), was a Canadian geologist, born in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Of Scottish descent, Dawson attended Edinburgh University to complete his education, and graduated in 1842, having gained a knowledge of geology and natural history from Robert Jameson.
Dawson returned to Nova Scotia in 1842, accompanied by Sir Charles Lyell on his first visit to that territory. Dawson was subsequently appointed to the post of superintendent of education (1850-1853); at the same time he entered zealously into the geology of Canada, making a special study of the fossil forests of the coal-measures. From these strata, in company with Lyell (during his second visit) in 1852, he obtained the first remains of an air-breathing reptile named Dendrerpeton. He also described the fossil plants of the Silurian, Devonian and Carboniferous rocks of Canada for the Geological Survey of Camada (1871-1873).
From 1855 to 1893 he was professor of geology and principal of McGill University in Montreal, an institution which under his influence attained a high reputation. He was elected F.R.S. in 1862. When the Royal Society of Canada was created he was the first to occupy the presidential chair, and he also acted as president of the British Association at its meeting at Birmingham in 1886, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Sir William Dawsons name is especially associated with the Eozoon canadense, which in 1864 he described as an organism having the structure of a foraminifer. It was found in the Laurentian rocks, regarded as the oldest known geological system. His views on the subject were contested at the time, and have since been disproven, the so-called organism being now regarded as a mineral structure. He was created C.M.G. in 1881, and was knighted in 1884. In his books on geological subjects he maintained a distinctly theological attitude, declining to admit the descent or evolution of man from brute ancestors, and holding that the human species only made its appearance on this earth within quite recent times.
Besides many memoirs in the Transactions of learned societies, he published Acadian geology:
The geological structure, organic remains and mineral resources of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (1855; ed. 3, 1878);
Air-breathers of the Coal Period (1863);
The Story of the Earth and Man (1873; ed. 6, 1880);
The Dawn of Life (1875);
Fossil Men and their Modern Representatives (1880);
Geological History of Plants (1888);
The Canadian Ice Age (1894).
John's son, George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901), became a well known and respected scientist and geologist in his own right.