George Mercer Dawson – What’s in a name?

(By Ingrid Birker, Science Outreach Coordinator)

Painting of Kootenai [sic] Pass

"View in mts 10 m. N. of Kootenai Pass". Painting by George Mercer Dawson, 1862-1863.

The other day I was attending a meeting in the Dean of Science’s office, located on the second floor of Dawson Hall. I peered out, and the first thing I saw was a dell of trees—some exotic and some local, some wizened with age and some youthful and upright—where preschoolers love to play. From the Dean of Arts window, just across the hall, I can view the new outdoor skating rink created on the field in front of the Redpath Museum. About 150 years ago the view from this window would have shown a pasture with a few grazing Holstein cows on either side of a muddy track leading up to the Arts Building. At that time, Dawson Hall, located to the east of the Arts Building, would have been the home of the Dawson family, headed by McGill’s fourth Principal, Sir John William Dawson; today, Dawson Hall houses administrative offices of the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts. The Dean of Science office occupies the Dawson family’s Drawing Room, a place where they would have withdrawn from daily life and academics. The historical photo showing Principal Dawson and his wife poised for their 50th Anniversary was taken in the Dean of Arts’ office which was Principal Dawson’s study. Beside them to the left, on the mantle above the granite fireplace, rests a small carved Haida totem, made from green- tinted ‘BC Jade’ or serpentine from the northern Rockies. It was collected by their son, George Mercer Dawson, when he explored and worked in western Canada in the 1880s, meeting First Nations people and studying their languages and customs. While studying the coal deposits of the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1878, he studied, photographed, and prepared a comprehensive report on the Haida people. He also published papers about the First Nations of the Yukon, northern British Columbia, and Vancouver Island, and the Shuswap people of central British Columbia. (more…)

Brooks and Rutherford Emanate

The more physics you have the less engineering you need. (Ernest Rutherford)

Portrait of Ernest Rutherford by R.G. Matthews, 1907

Portrait of Ernest Rutherford by R.G. Matthews, 1907

Physics at McGill was born in 1891 when the tobacco manufacturer, William Macdonald, dedicated funding for a new Physics Building and for the creation of the Macdonald Chair in Physics. In 1893 the Macdonald Physics Building opened and the M.Sc. program was established.

This was almost three decades before Ernest Rutherford split the core of the atom in 1919 and declared that he had “broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter”. The nucleus of Rutherford’s experiments into ‘transmutation of matter’ had started in a basement lab of the Macdonald Physics building in 1898. His instruments and apparatus, concocted with the help of laboratory assistants out of wire, wax and glass apparatus which they blew themselves, are today preserved and exhibited at the Rutherford Physics Museum. (more…)

The nation’s timekeeper: McGill and the Dominion Observatory

Image from McGill Archives, lithograph circa 1860s:  In this idealized artist’s sketch, the McGill Observatory is the building at the top left side.

Image from McGill Archives, lithograph circa 1860s: In this idealized artist’s sketch, the McGill Observatory is the building at the top left side.

The Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences marks its 50th anniversary this year, but meteorological work at McGill began about 150 years ago inside a stone tower built by the Dominion of Canada to track the north star and keep time for the freight trains. Known locally as the McGill Observatory, this tower enclosed a 7-foot telescope and stood on the bluff just behind what is today the Leacock Building. “The nation’s timekeeper” was housed inside this tower, and most of Canada’s clocks in the last century were set by McGill’s time!

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