John Macoun (1831-1920)

Backgrounder

A field naturalist and scientist, John Macoun was the first to survey, document, and categorize Canadian flora in a systematic manner. He devoted his life to collecting botanical specimens that later formed the core of Canada’s national collection. Following Confederation, Macoun performed a careful analysis of prairie lands commonly called Palliser’s Triangle, and controversially concluded that this semi-arid region could sustain ranching and wheat cultivation. Throughout his career, Macoun communicated with renowned botanists throughout the English-speaking world, and this exchange of information and exemplars both enriched the study of botany in this country and made Canada’s plant life a part of the emerging international study of botany.

Born in Ireland, Macoun immigrated to Ontario with his family in 1850 and in 1868 became chair of the natural science department at Albert University (now College) in Belleville, Ontario. Between 1872 and 1881, he travelled across Canada’s West as an explorer and field botanist for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s surveying parties, tasked by the federal government to study the geology, natural resources, economic prospects, and developmental possibilities of the Northwest. His positive conclusions on the fertility of the southern sections of the region were controversial at the time, as they challenged the accepted view that the area known as Palliser’s Triangle was too dry for large-scale agricultural use. Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government, committed for political reasons to western expansion as a key plank in their National Policy, embraced Macoun’s assessments. Furthermore, in part based on Macoun’s work, the railway was routed through the southern prairies, rather than to the north through Edmonton as had been planned. In the long term, Macoun’s assessment of the agricultural potential of the region would prove, in certain circumstances, to be too optimistic, as seen in the drought conditions of the 1930s.

From 1879 to 1912, Macoun was a senior civil servant, appointed in 1881 as Dominion Botanist and serving from 1885 onwards as the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada’s (GSC) Assistant Director and Naturalist. He directed the GSC’s scientific endeavours from the field and collected and preserved an impressive grouping of specimens, not only of plants but also of birds, insects, dinosaur bones, fossils, rocks and minerals. His collections formed the basis of the research files and displays of the Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Nature, which was largely constructed to house the massive collections of artifacts and exemplars he had brought together. Other large donations of his material in Canada can be found in herbaria from Victoria to Montréal and in foreign collections in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.

Macoun’s Catalogue of Canadian Plants (1883-1902) was a pioneering attempt at documenting comprehensively all our known plants in a scientific fashion. Written with his son, James Melville Macoun, his Catalogue of Canadian Birds (1900-1904) did the same thing for the country’s birds. A final study, on the mammals of Canada, remained incomplete at his death in 1920.

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