LAWSON, GEORGE, botanist, author, educator, and civil servant; b. 12 Oct. 1827 in Scotland and baptized the following month in the parish of Forgan, Fife, son of Alexander Lawson and Margaret McEwan; m. first Lucy Stapley (d. 1871) in Edinburgh, and they had two daughters; m. secondly 1876 Caroline Matilda Knox, née Jordan, in Halifax; d. there 10 Nov. 1895.
While growing up in Dundee, Scotland, George Lawson spent summers near Kilmany, where his love of nature took root. He developed a habit of collecting plant specimens and replanting them at home as objects of study. After a private education he was apprenticed to a solicitor in Dundee, but he continued his scientific self-education at the Watt Institution Library there. Already displaying skills in organization and communication that would characterize him in Canada, during the 1840s he circulated the “Dundee Natural History Magazine,” a monthly manuscript periodical, to local naturalists and helped found the Dundee Naturalists’ Association.
By 1846 Lawson’s restlessness in his legal studies gave way to a more general dissatisfaction with his prospects in Scotland. He turned to Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London). Lawson wrote for advice, he said, on behalf of “a friend” who was contemplating a botanical “stroll in America” and wondered whether one “willing to undergo any hardships, dangers, or difficulties” and “to devote his lifetime in searching out the riches of the trans-Atlantic Forests” would be “rewarded by brilliant discoveries.” Hooker was apparently unable to offer any inducements, and in 1848 Lawson instead enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to qualify as a science teacher.
For the next decade Lawson studied natural and physical sciences at Edinburgh and participated in local scientific organizations. He was assistant secretary and curator to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and assistant librarian of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where he compiled a model catalogue of its library. His involvement in both the Caledonian Horticultural and the Scottish Arboricultural societies also prepared Lawson well for similar roles in Canada.
These activities brought Lawson into contact with leading botanists. The major influence upon his scientific development was John Hutton Balfour, professor of botany and dean of the medical faculty at the University of Edinburgh and keeper of the city’s Royal Botanic Garden. Balfour developed laboratory research at Edinburgh, using microscopes in the study of vegetable morphology and plant physiology. He routinely conducted student excursions through the Scottish countryside, to procure specimens and to stimulate the study of plant forms in their ecological relationships. Balfour’s leadership in the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Botanical Club would inspire Lawson to similar work in Canada.
Balfour’s botany deviated little from orthodox views regarding the fixity of species, but he encouraged independent observation. He helped to pioneer biogeographical approaches that focused on the distribution and variation of plants rather than on fixed forms. He emphasized a comprehensive view of the earth’s vegetation and held that botany would remain imperfect as long as vast tracts of the world remained unexplored by botanical travellers. Such generalizations might in themselves have justified a closer look at British North American botany, but Balfour was especially fascinated by alpine; plants, whose geographical distribution could best be studied in northern regions. By pointing out that even minute lichens and mosses played important roles in preparing the way for human settlement through the conversion of sterile rock into fertile soil, and by extolling the botanical virtues of Scotland as a northern land, Balfour infused Lawson’s later botanical work in Canada with a deep sense of purpose.
For the time being Lawson worked as a demonstrator in Balfour’s laboratory at the university, where he may have taught James Barnston*, later professor of botany at McGill College. But ten years in such a secondary capacity failed to fulfil his social and professional ambitions. His acquaintance with James Hector, geologist to the famous expedition to northwestern British America led by John Palliser* in 1857, reinforced Lawson’s feeling that he was going nowhere at Edinburgh.
In 1858 news reached Lawson through the Presbyterian Church that Queen’s College at Kingston in Upper Canada required a professor of chemistry and natural history. Following a strong recommendation from Balfour, the Queen’s board of trustees was happy to appoint him. Lawson had received a d.phil. the previous year from the university at Giessen (Federal Republic of Germany), had already published more than 50 articles on botany and microscopy, and was seen as a boon to Queen’s reputation. His distinguished academic record was recounted in Kingston papers, as was news that his salary exceeded that of established professors. Queen’s was already a powder keg of strong personalities under weak leadership, and Lawson’s arrival in the autumn of 1858 resembled an approaching spark.
Lawson carried a heavy teaching load in natural history and chemistry at Queens. In addition he set up a chemical and botanical laboratory with microscopes, to pass on the benefits of his own modern training in experimentation and observation. He also hoped to promote public interest in science in Canada. Soon after his arrival he addressed the local agricultural exhibition at Kingston and in 1859 delivered a course of public lectures on chemical applications at the mechanics’ institute.
Lawson’s most important contribution to the organization of Canadian botany, however, was the founding of the Botanical Society of Canada in December 1860. He and several colleagues at Queen’s agreed that Canada had too long avoided the “obligations” under which its vast natural resources placed it. Resource development, Lawson argued, could best be carried out with a knowledge of botany. A botanical society would direct public attention to neglected sources of industrial wealth. He also envisioned the organization as a coordinator of research in the geographical distribution of plants, with amateur botanists playing an important role. In urging botanists to take all of British North America as their field, Lawson contrasted sharply with William Hincks*, professor of natural history at the University of Toronto, who limited his purview to local settled areas. Lawson assumed that Canada harboured many specimens not previously discovered in Britain or the United States.
Lawson’s enthusiasm and expansive ideas found an audience in the Botanical Society of Canada. The founding meeting attracted 91 members, who resolved to establish a botanical garden, to botanize around Kingston and beyond, and to publish a catalogue of Canadian plants by adding lists from other regions to those of local collections. Female members, inspired by Mrs Lawson, an accomplished amateur botanist, received equal privileges. At the second meeting in January 1861 the BSC attracted 140 paying members, including such local politicians as John A. Macdonald and Alexander Campbell. William Leitch*, the principal of Queen’s, was elected president and Lawson secretary. By the third meeting 200 were attending. An important recognition of the society’s legitimacy was Sir William Edmond Logan*’s decision in 1861 to entrust the botanical collections of the Geological Survey of Canada to the BSC. The society also earned favourable notices abroad, from botanists who hoped that the northern limits of plant species would finally be known. By 1861, when the first number of its Annals was published, the prestige of the BSC was such that members had begun to suffix the initials fbsc to their names.
From its inception the BSC served practical as well as theoretical purposes. Farmers received advice on dealing with pests, and new seeds were distributed, notably parsnip chervil as a potato substitute. Lawson proposed seaweed as a manure along the lower St Lawrence and Atlantic coasts. To manufacturers he and his student Andrew Thomas Drummond* suggested plants for paper and lichens for dyes. Members, including John Christian Schultz, who had joined while a student at Queen’s, contributed information on the geographical distribution of plants westward to the Red River settlement (Man.).
An important stimulus to botanical collecting in Canada in the 1860s was Sir William Hooker’s intention to publish a new series of British colonial floras. His plans to direct the British North American volume fuelled rumours that he and his staff would soon visit Canada. The rumours died hard, and disappointment deepened when the government of the Province of Canada failed to fund the colony’s contribution to the imperial project. In a period of growing political crisis, the project was crushed under the weight of more immediate problems. The government may also have hesitated because it had provided financial aid to Léon Provancher, whose Flore canadienne was published at Quebec in 1862. Hoping to press the matter, Lawson remained a linchpin between imperial botanists and Canadian politicians but had the frustration of failing to secure funding even for the BSC’s proposed botanical exploration of unsettled parts of Canada.
By the time Hooker decided to pursue his project anyway, Lawson was no longer in Kingston to guide the BSC’s cooperation. Quarrels between the trustees of Queen’s College and its medical faculty, whose students Lawson also taught, had been abraded into a festering sore. Lawson’s efforts to reform the college’s constitution dismayed its trustees. When John Stewart resigned as secretary to the medical faculty in 1861, Lawson earned his bitter enmity by succeeding him. Tensions exploded in January 1863 when new university statutes defining the board’s authority were interpreted by the faculty as a breach of faith. “One has to live a few years in a Colony,” Lawson confided to Balfour, “to see how much evil there is in the world.” In October 1863 he resigned from Queen’s and left behind a state of “riot and confusion.” Principal Leitch would die a few months later, allegedly of the strain. Lawson was quickly replaced as professor of chemistry and natural history by Robert Bell*, his former student, but the BSC had relied on his connections and it suffered a death-blow by his departure.
Lawson left Kingston for Halifax, where on 3 October he had been appointed professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the newly reorganized Dalhousie College. His scientific reputation and Presbyterian background had once again combined to win him a position. At Dalhousie he incorporated laboratory work into the main subjects he taught, as well as into medical chemistry and botany. His course in botany included regular field excursions. Lawson also lectured at Halifax Medical College, and in 1877 he helped organize the Technological Institute of Halifax, giving evening courses in chemistry for workers in the chemical industries.
A personal interest in agricultural improvement stretched back to Lawson’s early years, when he had published a book on British agriculture. In Halifax he served as secretary to the Central Board of Agriculture of Nova Scotia from 1864 until 1885, when the board was abolished and he was appointed to the new position of secretary of agriculture. At Sackville he ran a stock farm which was considered a model of its kind. He advocated the importation of thoroughbred stock and new strains of crops from Britain, and following a visit home in 1875 he brought cattle, pigs, and sheep back on the steamer with him. At the farm, named Lucyfield after his first wife, he had a summer residence where he may have kept his library and herbarium. Lawson advised managers of the agricultural school at Truro in the teaching of agricultural sciences and the use of the microscope in botany. As secretary to the board of agriculture, he edited the Journal of Agriculture (later the Nova Scotian Journal of Agriculture) from 1865 to 1885, a publication that included many of his own writings on scientific applications to agricultural problems.
Lawson actively supported the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science (later the Nova Scotian Institute of Science), serving on its executive and presenting papers that were published in its transactions. His botanical studies continued to follow those of his British mentors, especially Joseph Dalton Hooker’s work on plant distribution. In 1862 Hooker’s “Outlines of the distribution of Arctic plants,” published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, had acknowledged Charles Darwin’s feat of unlocking the phylogenetic relationship of plants and confirmed the importance of northern American evidence in explaining world-wide patterns of plant distribution. Lawson applied Hooker’s theories to his own work on British North American plant species. He accordingly found that northern plants spread farther south along the Atlantic coast than they did inland and that swamp plants found in the Province of Canada flourished on the east-coast hillsides. But in other matters he remained cautious. He hesitated to pronounce on the origins of plant species because he believed that Darwin’s case was not sufficiently compelling. He encouraged amateur botanists to collect specimens of heather in order to determine whether the alpine plant was indigenous to the east coast of British North America, as Hooker would have it, or had been introduced later by settlers, as John William Dawson and other opponents of Darwin insisted. By 1864 Lawson confirmed Hooker’s view of plant migration, specifically that heather was indeed native to Nova Scotia and had once spread widely over North America.
Lawson’s move to Halifax broadened both the horizons and the responsibilities of Canadian amateur botanists. Some of the tenuous personal connections established by the BSC were maintained in Kingston by Drummond, who corresponded with collectors such as Louis-Ovide Brunet* and John Macoun*, but the central depot for a catalogue of Canadian plants shifted to Montreal. Lawson continued to collect specimens for the catalogue and to hope for a revival of the Annals. These goals proved increasingly elusive. Confederation and the transcontinental expansion of the new dominion meant that the numbers of new species and locations for the catalogue would be increased exponentially. Lawson believed that species in the yet unsettled territories would prove more varied and more fully developed than those farther east, and he helped finance Macoun’s explorations to the source of the Trent River in Ontario in 1868. His intention of publishing a thorough, critical examination of Canadian plants was hamstrung by the almost insurmountable mass of botanical materials that had been accumulated. Instead of a comprehensive volume, he aimed at a series of monographs on selected aspects of the Canadian flora. Several actually appeared during the 1870s, each highlighting the nation-wide distribution of one botanical family, but nothing approaching a complete flora ever emerged from his pen.
Lawson also evinced an ever-widening interest, both theoretical and practical, in the northern explorations of the Geological Survey of Canada. He viewed botanical research in terms of the variation, adaptation, and survival of plants under changing climatic conditions and over large areas of the earth’s surface, and he promoted botany as a measure of the potential of the Arctic and Hudson Bay coasts for productive cultivation and settlement. For these reasons he kept abreast of Robert Bell’s exploratory maps and reports on arctic tree distribution in the 1880s.
By the following decade Lawson feared a decline in systematics, which he still deemed paramount to the progress of botany in Canada. In a paper read to the Royal Society of Canada in 1891, he regretted the lack of an association that would forge local botanists scattered throughout the dominion into “an army of explorers.” The same year he founded the loosely organized Botanical Club of Canada as a central depot to collect information from local amateurs and to lend coherence to the embarrassment of botanical riches which would take decades to collect, identify, and catalogue.
George Lawson had been a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada and served as its president in 1887–88. As early as 1862 he had received an honorary lld from McGill College. He was a fellow or corresponding member of a number of scientific societies in Britain and Europe, including the Royal Horticultural Society in London, and at his death was president of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science.
Lawson never managed to counter the popular fallacy that botanists required relatively little territory to evaluate a given district. Nor was he able to gain public funding for a botanical survey. Even within his own expansive outlook, he believed that the inventorial aspect of botany was best carried out locally. Perhaps more significant was Lawson’s own method of research, which was more characteristic of a hard-working secretary than of a creative director of Canadian botanical studies. Lawson never broke out of the research mould formed by Balfour and J. D. Hooker in the way that Asa Gray was able to do at Harvard University. Moreover, his contribution to the rationalization of Nova Scotian agriculture took its toll on him, for his enormous administrative responsibilities conflicted with his personal obsession with completeness in botanical research. He died of a stroke in his 69th year.
Despite George Lawson’s inability to satisfy all the botanical and organizational goals he had set for himself, his enthusiasm for his subject and his pedagogical skills transformed a generation of students into active contributors to the science. His career ended just as professional botany was becoming an established discipline in Canadian universities and he, like Brunet and Provancher in Quebec, had done much to shore up its foundations in the early transitional years.
George Lawson is the author of numerous botanical works; an extensive bibliography appears in RSC Trans., 1st ser., 12 (1894), proc.: 49–52, but it must be used with caution since it contains some inaccuracies. A number of items are also listed in the National union catalog.
Lawson’s Canadian writings include “Address, delivered by Dr. Lawson, at the agricultural show at Kingston, on Thursday, 28th October, in the Crystal Palace,” published in the Canadian Agriculturist (Toronto), 9 (1858): 232–35, and the texts accompanying the third and fourth series of [Maria F. A. Morris*] Miller’s collections of water-colours, Wild flowers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick . . . (Halifax and London, 1866), and Wild flowers of North America . . . (London, 1867). His address to the Royal Society of Canada, “On the present state of botany in Canada, with suggestions as to the promising lines of investigation, and a proposal for united effort in systematic observation throughout the several provinces and territories,” was published in its Trans., 1st ser., 9 (1891), sect.iv: 17–20.
DUA, ms 2–159; ms 2–381, George Lawson to Bell, 11 Oct. 1883; 18 Dec. 1886; 12, 28 March 1887. GRO (Edinburgh), Forgan, reg. of births and baptisms, 18 Nov. 1827. Justus Liebig-Universität, Universitätsarchiv (Giessen, Federal Republic of Germany), George Lawson, record of d.phil. degree, Grossherzogliche Ludwigs-Universität Giessen, 6 Aug. 1857. McGill Univ. Arch., MG 2046, George Lawson to Logan, 2 Jan. 1861. Royal Botanic Garden Library (Edinburgh), J. H. Balfour corr, George Lawson to Balfour, 22 Sept. 1857; 31 Jan., 7 Feb., 12–13 March 1862; 2 Jan., 2 July, 4 Dec. 1863. Royal Botanic Gardens, Library (London), W. J. Hooker corr, Lawson to Hooker, 24 June, 11, 22 Aug. 1846; 18 Jan. 1860; 24 Oct. 1862; 31 March 1864; Lord Monck to Hooker, 13 Nov. 1862; J. B. Hurlburt to Hooker, . A. H. Mackay, “Memoir of the late Professor Lawson,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 2 (1896), proc.: B1–B6. Nova Scotian Institute of Science, Proc. and Trans. (Halifax), 9 (1894–98): xxiv–xxx. D. P. Penhallow, “A review of Canadian botany from 1800 to 1895,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 3 (1897), sect.iv: 3–56. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.2. Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians. H. [M.] Neatby and F. W. Gibson, Queen’s University, ed. F. W. Gibson and Roger Graham (2v., Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1978–83), 1: 69–71, 77, 90, 102–3. Jacques Rousseau and W. G. Dore, “L’oublié de l’histoire de la science canadienne – George Lawson, 1827–1895,” Pioneers of Canadian science, ed. G. F. G. Stanley (Toronto, 1966): 54–80. Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: early Victorian science and the idea of a transcontinental nation (Toronto, 1987).
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Cite This Article
Suzanne Zeller, “LAWSON, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lawson_george_12E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Suzanne Zeller|
|Title of Article:||LAWSON, GEORGE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|