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Popular science in nineteenth century Canada
The case of the Canadian Naturalist

Susan Sheets-Pyenson   Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

Little is known about science publishing in Canada in the nineteenth century; still less is known about popular science publishing.The first aim of this paper will be to explore these developments in general. It is likely that the 1860s will prove to be of central importance, since this was the most prosperous decade of the century for Canadian publishers. One suspects that a scientific flowering followed the literary flowering of the day.

I intend to focus my attention on one particularly important organ which sought both to disseminate and popularize science, the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist. The Canadian Naturalist was founded by Elkanah Billings in 1855; it was succeeded by the Canadian Record of Science in 1885. During most of this thirty-year period, the Canadian Naturalist became the official journal of the Montreal Natural History Society.

The Montreal publishers of the Canadian Naturalist–the firm of Dawson Brothers– struggled to make the journal profitable. They toyed with various strategies intended to increase sales, including the range of coverage and periodicity. Despite their ability to place the journal in the hands of nearly one thousand readers, Dawson Brothers remained unhappy with the journal, and relinquished their responsibility in 1888.

Under the firm editorial control of Mc Gill’s principal John William Dawson (no relation to the publishers), however, the Canadian Naturalist came to symbolize the importance of the Natural History Society and of Montreal, headquarters of the Geological Survey of Canada. Accordingly, the journal emphasized geology and served to disseminate the discoveries of workers scattered across the young country. Still, the Canadian Naturalist sought an international role; it entered the debate over evolution, for example. In addition, Dawson appealed to his extensive network of leading naturalists in the United States and Britain for contributions.

In my view, then, an examination of the fortunes of the Canadian Naturalist over its thirty-year history can reveal much about the culture of science in Canada during the nineteenth century. The journal was forced to conduct a tricky balancing act: on the one hand it had to answer the needs of the emerging community of scientific professionals; on the other, it needed to cater to certain elements of the public in order to ensure the viability of the undertaking. Its success in doing so made the Canadian Naturalist the bellwether of scientific periodical publication of its day.

 

 

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