Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

John Macoun, Renowned Canadian Botanist and Geologist

Enthusiastic in his second career, John Macoun’s extensive study of plant and animal life became the basis for today’s Canadian Museum of Nature.

An immigrant from Northern Ireland at age 19, John Macoun came to Seymour Township, Upper Canada (now Eastern Ontario) in 1850 with his parents. He was born at Maralin, Ireland on April 17, 1831, regarded as a stubborn, curious and intelligent boy. His fascination with the natural sciences directed him to studies at Syracuse University where he earned a Masters Degree. After working as a farmer and teacher, Macoun took a job as Professor with Albert College in Belleville, Ontario. Honing his capabilities in plant geography, “he began devoting virtually every spare moment to the collection of his beloved specimens,” said Natural Resources Canada, taking numerous field trips to gather the plants. In 1868, Albert College appointed him Chair of Natural History.

The respected Dr. John Macoun, Ottawa, January 1902, Library and Archives Canada

Survey Expeditions for Macoun

One field trip in 1872 took a surprise turn for the botanist. Railway Chief Engineer Sir Sandford Fleming invited Macoun along on his survey expedition for the railroad. That one trip led to four more with Sir Fleming over the next nine years, Macoun’s knowledge helping set the location of rail lines. Macoun found that the Prairies, first deemed desert-like and unproductive, were fertile farmland suitable for agricultural development. On a trip in 1879, Macoun noted that there was “nothing to be seen but grass and flowers” across the Prairies. He found 32 new plants “in less than an hour” on that trip.

Though he had his flaws on the paperwork grind of science, in 1881 John Macoun was appointed Dominion Botanist of the Geological Survey of Canada. But that was of no matter. Head of the GSC Alfred Selwyn was pleased to have Macoun as a field naturalist, noted Collections Canada. Macoun thrived in the job, his second career. No thought of retirement crossed his mind even though he was 50 years old. Macoun’s field of investigation widened to include fauna – animal life – in Canada, too.

Macoun on the Prairies

Exuberance for his work also made Macoun occasionally less than practical. On the Prairies, his overly-optimistic and contagiously positive view of the land lead government down the wrong path for immigrants. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online said, “the resulting belief that settlers required little assistance at the pioneering stage would lead to much hardship, and thus undermine federal homestead policy”

Botanist John Macoun “examining a bird nest and egg with young friend,” ca 1920

His amazing eye for finding new plant-life in the wilderness wherever he travelled was Macoun’s strength. Over the years, he amassed a collection of more than 100,000 species. His weakness was in the preservation and organization of the plants. They often sat for years in his office before they were examined and recorded. The massive collection of flora and fauna (including birds) became the basis for the Victoria Memorial Museum, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, and eventually to the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario. The Museum uncovers some of the fascinating explorations of Canada’s natural history.

Catalogue of Canadian Plants

Nourishing his interests in natural science throughout his life, Macoun was named a Charter Member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882. Earlier, he was a Member of the Botanical Society of Canada, 1860-1862, and he was made President of the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club from 1886-1887.

A significant number of the plants Macoun found were named after him, along with several locations, such as Macoun Lake and the Town of Macoun, both in Saskatchewan. Professor Macoun wrote many books, a few of the titles including “Manitoba and the Great North-West”, the three-book set of “Catalogue of Canadian Plants”, and with one of his children, “Catalogue of Canadian Birds”

Macoun with Geological Survey of Canada

While recovering from a stroke in 1812, the passionate botanist worked steadily at his beloved science. Macoun continued to collect natural specimens, produce reports and work on his autobiography until his death at 89 years of age. He was a member of the Geological Survey of Canada for 31 years. Married to Ellen Terrill of Brighton, Upper Canada in 1861, Macoun had five children; one of his sons followed his footsteps and became a botanist. William T. Macoun was the Dominion of Canada’s Lead Horticulturalist. His specialty was the promotion of apples.

Professor John Macoun died in Sidney on Vancouver Island, BC on July 18, 1820, leaving a remarkably wide-ranging legacy of natural science for all to appreciate and enjoy.

This article first appeared on in November 2011.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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