Publication22 March 2023
Born Magheralin, County Down, Ireland 1831. Died Sidney, British Columbia, Canada, 18 July 1920.
Author: Nicolas McCarthy
Born in Magheralin, County Down, Ireland in 1831, John Macoun was the son of a soldier who died when John was six years old. Macoun was raised on family land that had been granted to one of his father’s ancestors almost two centuries earlier for military service. It was an ideal setting for a boy with an insatiable curiosity, and he developed a great passion for the outdoors and the natural world.
His education at the parochial school of the Presbyterian Church strengthened this faith in his capabilities. Macoun was a pompous young man who considered himself morally superior. As well, he was prepared to fight for his beliefs, confident that he would prevail. By the time he had assumed a clerk’s position in Belfast, in his teens, he also held the same values as his fellow Ulstermen: allegiance to the crown, dedication to union with Britain, and support for the Conservative party and the Orange order.
In 1850, the family left Ireland for Upper Canada, settling on Seymour Township near Anne Macoun’s brother. Six years later Macoun became a school teacher and taught at several country schools before attending Normal School in Toronto and obtaining a position at Belleville, Ontario, in 1860.
An intense boyhood interest in natural history remained with Macoun when he came to Canada and he continued his studies of botany, including his practice of studying plant life in the field. His correspondence with expert botanists revealed to them his great knowledge of the subject. As a result, in 1868 he was appointed professor of natural history at Belleville's Albert College.
While in the Georgian Bay area on one of his field trips, Macoun meet Sir Sandford Fleming, who was surveying possible routes for a railway that would cross Canada. Fleming invited Macoun to participate in the surveys with a view to assessing various terrains for their suitability for agriculture. Macoun's subsequent work with Fleming came to the attention of the director of the Geological Survey of Canada who offered Macoun a similar position with the Survey.
In 1875, Macoun was the botanist of a Geological Survey expedition that explored the Peace River and the Rockies and from 1879 to 1881, he explored the prairie regions. Following a later survey of the Yukon Territory he predicted that even in such northern latitudes farming would be possible.
Like other explorers of the Geological Survey, Macoun was an avid collector of specimens and the need for storage and display areas for the Survey's collections led in 1911 to the construction in Ottawa of the Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Museum of Nature. From his collections of plants and his field notes Macoun prepared a seven-part catalogue of Canadian plants, published from 1883 to 1902. In addition, from his bird collections and field notes came a three-part catalogue of Canadian birds, published from 1900 to 1904.
A fine lecturer, Macoun held the interest of his audiences through a combination of vast knowledge, oratorical skills and a keen sense of humour. He was a popular speaker at meetings of the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, and he was one of the founders of the Ottawa Field Naturalists' Club, serving for a time as its president in 1886–87. His home at 98 James Street was often a popular gathering place for evening discussions. Through his association with some of the country’s leading scientists, he was named a charter-member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882 and he was a regular visitor at the governor general’s residence.
Macoun’s feverish rounds of activity and travel came to an abrupt end in 1912, when he suffered a paralytic stroke and, with his ailing wife, moved to Sidney on Vancouver Island to live with their eldest daughter. Even then, however, he did not retire completely from the GSC. Right up until his death in 1920, he continued to submit reports and collect specimens along the coast, in addition to working on his autobiography.
John Macoun died 18 July 1920 in Sidney, British Columbia and was buried in the cemetery at Patricia Bay, British Columbia where his wife had been buried. However, in 1922 their remains were removed to Beechwood Cemetery for burial (Section 39, Lot 73 S) near their son James Melville Macoun, who had worked for the Geological Survey as an assistant to his father. Macoun marsh, on the cemetery's property, is named for him
When John Macoun came to Canada in 1850, he entered a vast and largely unmapped land whose resources were largely unknown. As a member of Canada's first scientific agency he earned the title “the enthusiastic explorer of unknown Canada” and his discoveries revealed much of the nature of Canada's plant and animal life.
Macoun, John (1922). Autobiography of John Macoun, M.A., Canadian explorer and naturalist, assistant director and naturalist to the Geological Survey of Canada, 1831-1920. The Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club.
Macoun, John (1979). Autobiography of John Macoun, Canadian explorer and naturalist, 1831-1920. Second edition. Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club. ISBN 0-9690251-0-6.