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Sir William Logan: first director of the Geological Survey of Canada

  The following article on Logan, very slightly modified (made more dull!), was extracted from Gordon Winder's web page at:
                                               (Other links)

    WILLIAM EDMOND LOGAN (1798 - 1875)   click to see a photograph of Logan

      Logan was founder and first director of the Geological Survey of Canada, from 1842 - 1869 - hey!! That's before Confederation.  He walked, paced, counted his steps for a zillion miles through thick Canadian bush with swarms of biting flies long before anyone thought of bug spray -- rain or shine, even snow yet -- mapping the geology, and making maps as he travelled - or those that existed he corrected - wore out dozens of field boots which lined the survey office walls in Montreal The first summary volume of  Canada's geology was published in 1863 - copy in university libraries - and a map in 1865, with a  larger version in 1869, which Logan probably hand coloured each copy himself.

      When he was knighted in 1856, Montreal and Toronto held great soirees of celebration - he HAD to attend, and give a speech which he loathed. Montreal gave him a great magnificent 'Stanley cup sized' trophy, call the SILVER FOUNTAIN. (John Molson of Montreal was a good friend.) For 25 years Canada, USA,  and the UK have been scoured in an attempt to find the cup - not a trace. Even Canadian antique dealers, UK auctioneers, and Henry Birks were asked. Perhaps he just dropped it in the Atlantic on one of his many crossings. His numerous medals are on display in Logan Hall at GSC headquarters in Ottawa.!

    Mt. Logan?  Canada's highest mountain - was name after William Logan. In the following sections there's a few more things which bear his name. He was also the subject of six essays published in the CIM Bulletin in 1991-92.

     Citizens who make notable contributions to society are memorialized by applying their name to a major award - Nobel; a way of thinking - Cartesian; a scientific law - Charles [or general law - Murphy]; a unit of measure - Ampere; and most commonly a geographic feature - Hudson Bay, Vancouver Island, etc. William Edmond Logan made a monumental contribution to Canada between 1842 and 1869. His name is applied to not one mountain, but two - Mount Logan (elev. 1100 m) located about 125 miles west of Gaspe, Quebec, and Mount Logan (elev.5959 m) in the south west corner of the Yukon territory, the highest in Canada and second highest in North America. His name is also applied to a range of mountains in central Yukon; a submarine canyon in the Atlantic continental shelf; two islands; a bay; a lake; an inlet; a township in Quebec; and a government park in Gaspe. Geologically his name has been applied to a mineral (weloganite); several fossils (such as Maclurites logani); the Logan sills at Thunder  Bay; the Cretaceous Logan Canyon Formation in the subsurface of the Atlantic continental shelf; Logan's  Line, the demarkation between the folded Appalachians and the flat-lying Paleozoic sediments, trending from Lake Champlain to Quebec City and beyond; and Logan's Loop, in the western Pacific, the path of  earth's magnetic pole during the Proterozoic.

      There is the Logan Medal, highest award of the Geological Association of Canada; Logan Tower, headquarters building in Ottawa of the Geological Survey of Canada; Logan Club, professional  organization for GSC scientists;  the Logan Chair for Geology at McGill University, and Logan medals and prizes, financed in part by Logan; and Logan Day, a social gathering in early October when Canadian geologists gather locally for sports, story spinning, and general celebration.

      Recognition during his lifetime is evident by one notable international award. At age 44 in April 1842, Logan was appointed founder and director of the Geological Survey of Canada. Less than 14 years later, on January 29, 1856, he was knighted by Queen Victoria, the first knighthood to have been accorded to someone born in Canada, and a rare honour for a scientist. He also received honourary degrees from McGill University, and the University of Lennoxville (now Bishop University), medals from the Geological Society of London; the Royal Society of London; Napoleon III of France; from Portugal the Order of the Tower and Sword; and medals for International Exhibitions in London (1851) and Paris (1855). The citizens of Montreal presented him with a Silver Fountain, and the citizens of Toronto organized a gala dinner, and  commissioned his portrait.

      William Logan was born in Montreal, April 20,1798, in a family whose father had immigrated from Scotland, and who was a successful baker, a wealthy farmer, and a property owner. He had three brothers and four sisters. In 1814 William was sent to Scotland to finish high school, and won several prizes. In 1816, he registered at Edinburgh University in medicine, and his classes, all large, were logic, mathematics, and chemistry. He achieved the highest class mark in mathematics, for which his award was a brass octant, with his name engraved in Latin. This instrument is like a sextant but only horizontal angles can be measured; it can be seen in the Logan Museum at the Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa. [In 1944, the instrument was found near Llandeilo, Wales, in a barn loft owned by a descendant of one of his sisters; the octant ownership was evident but its significance was unknown to them].  Logan left the university at the end of the year, possibly upon hearing about surgery without benefit of anaesthetic. Within a week he was in London working for his uncle Hart Logan as bookkeeper and accountant. During his leisure hours, he took lessons in painting, languages, flute, and geometry. [The Latin roots mean earth measuring, the mathematics of dimension and volume.] In 1831, his uncle acquired an interest in copper smelting and coal mining near Swansea, Wales, and William was appointed manager. South Wales has broad river valleys with low rolling hills, on the sides of which were located numerous small coal mines operated by one or two men. The smelting operation required a continuous supply coal, which these small individual operations could not guarantee. Logan wrote his brother in London for old clothes, books on mineralogy, and a theodolite, and proceeded to construct precise geological maps. Whether he had any surveying instruction is unknown. The existing geological maps, by William (Strata) Smith, 1815, and George Greenough, 1820, were highly generalized. Whether Logan was even aware of these maps is unknown. His own maps were sufficiently detailed and accurate, that the British Geological Survey adopted them for publication; Logan's name is still on the modern versions for the area.

      Did Logan have any interest in geology before going to Swansea in 1831? At Edinburgh University, the chemistry professor was T.C. Hope, an ardent and vocal supporter of Wernerism. Another faculty member was Sir James Hall, an original investigator in experimental igneous petrology, who argued the case for vulcanism.  Logan probably heard the rhetoric about these contrasting theorie, but probably had little training in the basic principles of geology. In 1833, at which time he had started his mapping in Wales, he was reading the 'Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales' by Conybeare and Phillips, published in 1822, in which are found such exotic words as 'granite', 'travertine', and 'jasper'. In 1834, he made a business trip to France and Spain, and was reading the third volume of Charles Lyell's 'Principles of Geology', published the same year. In 1829, Logan made a trip to Italy and his diary suggests that he went as a tourist. He recorded the rock types used as building stone - granite(11); porphyry(2); marble(8); travertine(5); jasper(2); lapis lazuli; alabaster; and pozzulana.  That Logan's uncle purchased an interest in a copper smelting operation suggests that his business might have been a commodities broker, including building stone. Logan interest in geology may therefore have initially been a business interest, rather than a scientific interest, and his mapping of South Wales coal occurrences may have catalyzed his interest in geology as a science. In 1835, the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Society was organized and Logan became the curator for geology. In 1838, his uncle Hart died, and his employment was terminated. He nevertheless continued his geological mapping in Wales until 1841.

      In 1842, when Logan was appointed as founding director of the Geological Survey of Canada, he was probably the best prepared candidate - physically, intellectually, scientifically, mentally, and by nationality.  In stature, Logan was about five foot nine inches,  weighing  about 150 pounds. Walking was innate!! In April 1828 for ten days, he, his brother and two friends, went on a walking, climbing, riding, rowing, and sailing trip over 400 miles in the western highlands of Scotland. One night after midnight by moonlight, they rode in a farm wagon which had been used that day to haul manure.  The next day they walked 14 miles from Ballychullish to Fort William, and up and down Ben Nevis, elevation 4406 feet. While living in London and Swansea, he walked to work each day, possibly four to six miles. His field measurements in the Canadian bush were made by counting steps using a compass, with a mercury barometer for elevation. One feature of the Survey office in Montreal was a row of his worn out field boots along the wall. His accuracy was evident because, in the Grenville area north of the Ottawa River, he discovered errors in the government land surveys.  [On at least one occasion local people wondered if he should be committed to the insane asylum - what strange antics, walking along mumbling to himself, making notes in leather bound notebooks, peering at a hand-held instrument, cracking rocks with a large sledge, wrapping the chips in paper, and carrying away in a large wicker basket!!]

      He had superior intelligence. He won prizes at high school, and the octant for mathematics at university. He must have taught himself about rock types, and geological field mapping; he progressed from near relatively gently folded rocks in south Wales, to complexly folded and faulted rocks in the Appalachians, to the metamorphic terranes of the Grenville. Presumably he was self-taught about minerals and rocks while employed by  his uncle, and as curator at the Swansea Institute. Fossils received his special attention; he called them the 'poetry of geology'.

      With respect to personal relation, he was an eccentric. Every day he did talk to each of the four or five Survey employees about their problems - T.Sterry Hunt, the chemist; Elkanah Billings, the paleontologist; James Richardson, field mapper; and the map maker, and the handyman; but not Alexander Murray, his senior field man, because he lived in Woodstock about 500 miles away. He expected his employees to work long hours, and they did, because they knew Logan worked even longer hours. He wrote out  by hand four copies of the professional reports before printing, and kept the Survey account books. Even at midnight a light could be seen in the Survey office, in which he worked and slept. Some wondered if he ever slept. Politicians always received special attention because they provided the funding. On a personal basis he usually wore field clothes every day. After his knighthood in 1856, he was probably one of the best known individuals in Canada, but few were able to identify him. One visitor to the Survey office mistook him for the handyman, and the well dressed handyman for the director. And when the demands and frustrations as director became overwhelming, he would disappear into the bush for several weeks.

      That Logan was born in Canada probably was a factor in his appointment. In 1845, he was offered the directorship for a Survey in India. He declined. Logan's father, also named William, was a Scottish Presbyterian; his portrait conveys the image of a highly successful business man whose face would crack if he smiled!! His four sons, none of whom married, were probably tutored to believe that dedication and determination in a chosen career are mandatory,  and would ensure success in life. In the Presbyterian Church, one teaching was predestination, which has the corollary that a career opportunity once evident, would indicate divine direction. Whether William Edmond Logan viewed his appointment as founder of the Geological Survey of Canada in this light is unknown. But his drive, determination, vigour, resolve, and focus, allow such speculation.

       Logan's two hundredth birthday is April 20, 1998.

       The July 1, 1998 issue of MACLEANS, Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, was devoted to The 100 Most Important Canadians In History.  Readers were invited to nominate individuals in ten fields - heroes, thinkers, nation builders, discoverers, artists, scientists, activists, characters, stars, and entrepeneurs. The above essay was sent to nominate Logan. The selection committee consisted of 25 experts and    knowledgeable individuals, with a York University professor of history as chair.

       Sir WILLIAM EDMOND LOGAN was selected as the #1 scientist, and sixth amongst the top ten.     References at the end of the above essay provide much more detailed information about Logan.

      The following is an edited version of the Citation in MACLEAN's, July 1, 1998, p.39, written by Professor Jack Granatstein, of York University, chair of the selection committee.
        SIR WILLIAM LOGAN  (1798-1875)   He travelled the land, accurately mapping the geology of Canada.
       Canadians have excelled in scientific endeavours as diverse as anthropology, reaction dynamics, the telephone, and the treatment of diabetes. In MACLEAN'S view, though, the greatest Scientist was a pioneering geologist whose surveys made it possible to tap Canada's treasury of minerals.
       Very few Canadians have heard of Sir William Logan, but they should have. He was one of the country's greatest scientists and a man whose imprint remains on the land.

        Logan was born in Montreal and educated in Scotland, though he did not progress beyond the first year medical course he began. He then worked in England and Wales, and in his early 30s managed a Swansea coal mine and copper smelter in which his uncle was a major investor. He quickly realized that coal supply for the smelters had to be guaranteed and this could be done only with the help of accurate maps of the coal seams. This began his professional interest in geology, and he produced maps that were so precise that the British geological survey published them. His name, wrote MACLEAN'S reader Gordon Winder, who nominated Logan as one of The 100 Most Important Canadians, still appears on current maps.

       Thereafter, Logan was a budding scholar. When he travelled, he kept records of the rock types he saw, and his interest and knowledge were such that in 1842 he became the first director of the Geological Survey of Canada. He applied himself to the task of furnishing "a full and scientific description of the country's rocks, soils, and minerals, to prepare maps, diagrams, and drawings, and to collect specimens to illustrate the occurrences." He developed a reputation for high accuracy -- and for eccentricity. What else could explain someone who walked around mumbling to himself, taking note in leather-bound notebooks, peering at instruments, cracking rocks with a hammer, and wrapping the chips in paper, and carrying them off in a large wicker basket?

       Logan worked hard and expected his staff to emulate him. He dressed in field clothes and, even after he was knighted in 1856, was occasionally mistaken for the office janitor. He wrote of life in the bush, "living the life of a savage, sleeping on the beach in a blanket sack with feet to the fire, seldom taking my clothes off, eating salt pork and ship's biscuits, occasionally tormented by mosquitoes". Logan also sketched superbly, augmenting his geological observations with pen and ink drawings

       His efforts laid out the geology of Canada East and Canada West. He sought fossils with eagerness, in 1851 finding invertebrate animals preserved in Cambrian rocks near Beauharnois. He noted how the ice pack on the St. Lawrence River damaged houses near the shore, and these observations influenced the way Montreal's Victoria Bridge was built. And always, he looked for minerals that could be commercially exploited, for he realized that government appropriations that kept the Geological Survey going were much more likely to continue if there was a return on the legislature's investment. Even so, there was never enough money, and Logan put up his own cash more than once when the government was slow. His work was invaluable, but as he explored north of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, finding the ore bodies that provided the foundation for the mineral wealth of Canada, he remained very cautious in his claims. That upset mining promoters, always on the lookout for a fast dollar. Oddly, for one so meticulous, he apparently missed the silver deposits at Cobalt and the nickel at Sudbury.

       Logan was honored in his time as Canada's premier scientist. His display of Canadian minerals at the Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations in 1851 in London was hailed, and he won medals from France in 1855. He published a huge volume on the geology of Canada in 1863, and produced an atlas of eastern and central North America in 1869, likely hand-colouring every map in each of the copies. His task, as he saw it, was "to ascertain the mineral resources of the country," and the reports and maps that his Geological Survey produced, established the geological fundamentals of the Canadas.  Mount Logan in the Yukon, the nation's highest peak, is named in his honor, as is Mount Logan in the Gaspe -- not to mention a lake, two islands, a bay, a glacier, and a Quebec township.

     Logan's  major publications:

Logan, W.E.,  1849. Report on the North Shore of Lake Huron.  Geological Survey of Canada, Report of Progress for the Year 1848, p. 8-20.

Logan, W.E. and Hunt, T.S., 1855. Esquisse Geologique du Canada; H. Bossange et Fils, Paris 100p.

Logan, W.E.,  1863. The Geology of Canada, 983p, Dawson Brothers, Montreal.


Harrington, B.J., 1883, Life of Sir William E. Logan Kt.: Montreal, Dawson Bros, 432 p.

Torrens, H.S., 1999, William Edmond Logan's geological apprenticeship in Britain 1831-1842: Geoscience
Canada, v. 26, p. 97-110.

Zaslow, M., 1975, Reading the rocks: Toronto, Macmillan Company of Canada, 599 p.

Other links to Logan:


Structural Provinces of North America.


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