William Francis Ganong

William Ganong (Bottom Left)Photo: Library Canada Archives
William Ganong (Bottom Left)
Photo: Library Canada Archives

William Francis Ganong (historian and professor) was born 19 February 1864 in Carleton (West Saint John), New Brunswick. He was the oldest of six surviving children that were born to James Ganong and Susan Brittain. His parents were both United Empire Loyalists, a fact that would foster a strong sense of Canadian identity in Ganong. His grandfather, William D. Ganong, used to take a young William on camping trips to the various islands of Passamaquoddy. This undoubtedly helped to fuel the boy’s deep sense of pride in New Brunswick. At an early age, Ganong tagged and collected biological and geological specimens during his camping trips. This would eventually develop into a lifelong career of mapping the natural and human history of the province.

When Ganong was nine, his father moved the family to St. Stephen where he and his brother established the successful Ganong Bros. chocolate making company and, years later, the St. Croix Soap Manufacturing Co. James was also involved in numerous civic movements in the area, including lobbying for a local cotton mill. In 1882, he became the seventh mayor of St. Stephen. These achievements inspired his son’s ambition and led the young Ganong to succeed in school. He was educated at the St. Stephen public school and went back to Saint John for his last year, where he graduated with the Parker Medal for his accomplishments in mathematics.

In the fall of 1881, Ganong enrolled in a three-year course in Natural Science at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). During this time, he came under the influence of new ideas in science, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the age of seventeen, he had already started serious investigations of coastal waters and river systems, as well as their flora and fauna. This infatuation carried into his university studies where he incorporated his findings into articles on the natural history of New Brunswick. Ganong received a BA in Natural Sciences with honours from UNB in 1884.

By January of 1885, Ganong had earned a grammar school licence from the province. He taught school in St. Stephen until that fall and then moved to the US to attend Harvard University. After graduating, he became an assistant instructor of Botany at Harvard. In 1888, he received the Morgan Fellowship and that same year, in March, he married Jean Murray Carman (sister to his good friend and well-known New Brunswick poet, Bliss Carman). The following year, Ganong was promoted to Botany instructor. He kept the post until 1893, when he went to Munich, Germany to study and earn a PhD.

When Ganong returned to North America, he was appointed as the first professor of Botany and director of the Botanic Garden at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. During his time teaching at Smith, he built a top-notch botanical department and wrote numerous essays, as well as four books. He wrote the books The Teaching Botanist (1899), A Laboratory Course in Plant Physiology (1901), The Living Plant (1913), and A Textbook of Botany for the Colleges (1916) to compensate for the lack of adequate textbooks in the field at the time. They emphasized the importance of teaching based on first-hand study of plants in both the field and the laboratory as well as the importance of the student’s role in both teaching and learning.

In May 1920, Ganong’s wife, Jean, died after thirty-two years of marriage. Three years later he married Anna Hobbett, an assistant at his Botany department, and within a few years they had two children. In 1932, Ganong retired from his post at Smith but continued to write papers, essays, and books. As he grew older, his health started to fail because of Parkinson’s disease. Realizing that he would not finish his work, he had it destroyed rather than leave it behind unfinished. Ganong died on 7 September 1941.

While Ganong’s teaching career was largely in the United States, he never forgot his ties to Canada and especially New Brunswick. In fact, he was always very involved with his home province. His passion included writing about the human and natural history of New Brunswick, as well as studying Indian place names and the region’s cartography. During his summers, he would make excursions throughout New Brunswick, making meticulous notes on all that he discovered. Ganong realized that human development was destroying evidence of past habitation and made it his goal to visit, study, and record as much about the province as he could.

The importance of his work in natural and human history, cartography, and Indian nomenclature can be traced back to the influence of the New Brunswick Natural History Society (NHS). His formal involvement with the NHS began in the summer of 1883, when he went on an expedition with the group to excavate a pre-historic shell midden at Bocabec, near St. Andrews. Ganong’s field notes from that expedition appeared in a report that would later become a landmark study in North American archaeology. He continued to write for the society (including his 1884 paper entitled, “On the Zoology of the Invertebrate Animals of Passamaquoddy Bay”) and in 1915, he received an honorary life membership for contributing over one-third of the total material for the NHS.

Among Ganong’s other important influences were William O. Raymond, James Vroom, Placide Gaudet, George V. Hay, Victor Hugo Platsists, and John C. Webster. Ganong corresponded regularly about New Brunswick with Vroom, Gaudet, and Raymond, all of whom frequently cited James Hannay as being influential in their work. Ganong would later clash with Hannay over the site of Fort la Tour. George Hay was a fellow instructor and accompanied Ganong on many camping trips throughout New Brunswick. He also sought Ganong’s help with a series of essays on Canadian history. Victor Hugo Paltsists was a librarian and historian who supplied Ganong with valuable sources throughout his career; Mary Sanger stated, “No study of Ganong’s ... would be complete without reference to ... Victor Paltsists” (97). Although Ganong shared an interest with all of these men in preserving as much of New Brunswick’s natural history as possible, he was in contact most frequently with John C. Webster. Together they helped to establish the New Brunswick Provincial Museum in Saint John in 1934.

Ganong’s works were rejected during the first half of the 20th-century—a time when a more nationalistic view of Canadian history was popular—but resurfaced during the latter half because of historians like William B. Hamilton. His works remain an important contribution to the historical literature of Canada and especially New Brunswick. For fifty-three years he contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada (of which he became a member in 1893). Notable among his numerous monographs during these years is A Monograph of the Cartography of the Province of New Brunswick, which outlined the boundaries of the province in an easy-to-use format that became indispensable to future scholars. In 1931, the Royal Society of Canada awarded Ganong the Tyrrell Medal in recognition of his outstanding scholarship.

Mike Kofahl, Winter 2009
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Ganong, William Francis. “The Cartography of the Gulf of St. Lawrence From Cartier to Champlain.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Vol. VII. Montreal, PQ: Dawson Brothers, 1890. 17-58.

---. “The Economic Mollusca of Acadia.” Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick 8 (1889): 3-116.

---. A Laboratory Course in Plant Physiology. 2nd ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1908.

---. The Living Plant: A Description and Interpretation of Its Functions and Structure. New York: Henry Holt, 1913.

---. A Monograph of Historic Sites in the Province of New Brunswick. Ottawa, ON: Royal Soc. of Canada, 1899.

---. “A Monograph of the Place-Nomenclature of the Province of New Brunswick (Contributions to the History of New Brunswick, No. 2).” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Ed. J. G. Bourinot. 2nd ser. Vol. II. Ottawa, ON: James Hope & Son, 1896. 175-289.

---. “A Monograph on the Origins of Settlements in the Province of New Brunswick (With Maps). (Contributions to the History of New Brunswick, No. 6).” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. 2nd ser. Vol. X. Ottawa, ON: James Hope & Son, 1905. 3-185.

---. “On the Zoology of the Invertebrate Animals of Passamaquoddy Bay.” Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick 4 (1885): 87-97.

---. “The Site of Fort La Tour.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. 2nd ser. Vol. IX. Montreal, PQ: Dawson Brothers, 1892. 61-75.

---. The Teaching Botanist. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillian, 1910.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Mitcham, Allison. “William Francis Ganong.” Three Remarkable Maritimers. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot, 1985. 99-130.

Rayburn, Alan. Naming Canada: Stories About Canadian Place Names. Rev. and expanded ed. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 2001.

Sanger, Mary E. “William Francis Ganong, Regional Historian.” MA thesis. U of Maine, 1980.

Webster, J.C. “William Francis Ganong.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. 3rd ser. Vol. XXXVI. Ottawa, ON: John Hope & Son, 1942. 91-92. (In Appendix B).

---. William Francis Ganong Memorial. Saint John, NB: New Brunswick Museum, 1942.