Rediscovering New Brunswick: A Story of W.F. Ganong

William Francis Ganong, 1895

William Francis Ganong, 1895

The recent rediscovering of the life and scientific depth of William Francis Ganong in popular books, such as those by Nicholas Guitard and Ronald Rees, deserves the attention of any young aspiring scientist and all those interested in the social and natural history of New Brunswick.  W.F Ganong was born in 1864 as the eldest son of Canada’s oldest chocolate company, Ganong Chocolatiers, in Carleton County New Brunswick. Despite his familial business connection it was evident that William was stirred at a very young age to explore the unique Acadian forests of New Brunswick and paddle many of the waterways in the province- his passion clearly lied in the natural sciences.  Readers with any experience in New Brunswick's rivers will be keenly aware of how water permeates this province. Rivers commonly flow through land that has been carved by glacial processes and the spectacular gorges of the Nepisigut and Northwest Miramichi demonstrate the molding of bedrock as a sort of fluvial punctuation of Pleistocene glaciation; a reality he would spend a lifetime exploring. Ganong unfailingly ventured into remote and unmapped areas of New Brunswick lugging with him canoes, provisions, cumbersome scientific instruments, novel portable cameras with roll film, tents of his own design and often but not always, a willing companion. In the context of his work on the province’s physiography, linguistics, natural and social history, Ganong framed it admirably; “It is my aim to collect the essential facts while there is time, and to preserve them for future generations of New Brunswick men and women who will care for these things.”

Ganong’s Rise

W.F Ganong was fortunate to have had the familial support of a lucrative chocolate company, but more importantly he was been born in the wake of scientific revolutions. Alexander Von Humboldt’s herculean expeditions to South America had unearthed broad ecological observations that provided the essentials for a science of ecology, Charles Darwin had published “On the Origin of Species” and society was grappling with invention of what would become the most efficient means of self-travel: the bicycle. Despite these developments, hard-nosed scientific inquiry was far from being in vogue. Ganong would pursue science and received a B.A along with a Masters degree from the University of New Brunswick under the mentorship of Loring Woart Bailey, for whom there is named a mountain (compliments of W.F Ganong) and the UNBF Biology building. Ganong would go on to receive another degree from Harvard followed by an exceptionally rapid completion (one year) of a PhD at the University of Munich. It’s worth noting his dissertation was written in German. Eventually, after a short stint as an assistant professor at Harvard, Ganong became a professor of Botany at Smith College in Massachuchetts. He would hold this position for 38 years and returned almost every summer to study New Brunswick.  

The excursions within New Brunswick were meticulously planned by Ganong and were dominated by particulars- lake depths, elevations and thorough plant surveys were the objectives and often repeated on following trips. Within the journals of his companions, which often included Arthur Henry Pierce, George Upham Hay or Mauran Furbish was a common theme of his tireless energy and single mindedness for seemingly tedious measurements. Alongside his surveying and astonishingly detailed mapping of New Brunswick, Ganong theorized on the natural history of many New Brunswick watersheds and provided an explanatory framework for how this land- abundant in biota and human history- had come to be.

Working understandings of German, French, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq languages allowed Ganong to interpret many observations in the field as a key into the history of settlement in New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada. An important connection was made between the physiography of the land and its settlements: where the shape of the land was best suited for fishing, hunting, trading and war, there were often settlers. Coupling his strong sense of linguistics with a fear that the oral traditions of many aboriginal peoples would not be sustained, Ganong pursued historic names and designations for areas that now bore the French or English corruptions.  Sewokulook to Sevogle River, Epetkutogoyek to Petitcodiac River or even Petekook to Baddeck in Cape Breton Island are all examples of such translations that did not uphold their original meanings. The insight Ganong shared with many of his peers was that the accuracy of these titles was a historical issue- getting them correct is important as a window into history and into culture- an idea that emphasized the preservation of those essential facts that surround us.

Miscou Island

Amongst Ganong’s ever-expansive interests included the puzzling dynamics of Miscou Island, in Northern New Brunswick. It was in this area that Ganong was truly preeminent. His study of the island, it’s curious beach formations and clear evidence of dynamic change, helped formulate what scientists now acknowledge as coastal subsidence. The shore, and its terrestrial components, are slowly sinking beneath the sea. This theory was quite controversial during the 19th  and 20th century, but with over a century of observation, stark changes across landmasses has clearly demonstrated the reality of subsidence. This natural phenomenon has proven hugely important for informed urban planning and is perhaps best demonstrated by the exacerbated subsidence in densely urbanized areas. In 1975, Texans were astonished to find that Houston had vertically sunk 3m- a consequence of draining regional aquifers. More severely, Silicon Valley -the mecca of technology start ups- was faced with the fact that aquifer drainage had induced an average 4m fall below sea level- the cost of which is estimated >$756M US. This issue is not localized to the United States; it threatens homes and even basic food security in the Netherlands, Vietnam and Cambodia- just to name a few. Clearly the development of a subsidence hypothesis, both coastal and inland, into a theory has furthered our knowledge of how not to sustainably colonize this planet.  

Smith College Massachuchets Greenhouse, Ganong began here in 1894 ( Smith College Botanic Garden greenhouse (from outside) photographed by  MPerel  March 10, 2005)

Smith College Massachuchets Greenhouse, Ganong began here in 1894 (Smith College Botanic Garden greenhouse (from outside) photographed by MPerel March 10, 2005)

Given his contributions to New Brunswick, It is difficult to describe W.F Ganong as anything short of a polymath. His work in botany- authoring four widely printed textbooks on the matter, his renowned work as an incisive cartographer (hand drafted maps), his publishing’s on settlement and exploration of the Atlantic coastline and even the remarkable exploits of his son, a pioneering physician in neuroendocrinology, collectively testify to his stature. I encourage any reader to explore the archives of W.F Ganong’s, some of which are available online, to examine a fuller breadth of his work.  The Ganong hall at the UNBSJ campus is named in his honor and soon, a statue will be erected along the banks of the St. Croix River. William Francis Ganong is only recently being heralded as New Brunswick’s greatest scholar, yet the need for a rediscovering of his prolific career speaks somewhat to a disregard for a province equally gifted with history as it is in biological diversity.

Please Note: Due to the nature of this article, it has not been reviewed by a researcher as per usual requirements.



Clayden, S. (1991). William Francis Ganong, New Brunswick Museum Supplement. Saint John, New Brunswick.

Ganong, W. (1914). An Organization of the Scientific Investigation of the Indian Place-nomenclature of the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3(3): 258-293.

Ganong, W. (1899). A Monograph of Historic Sites in the Province of New Brunswick. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 2(5): 207-295.

Ganong, W. (1897). A Monograph of the Cartography of the Province of New Brunswick. Transactions of the Royal Society, 2(3): 314-427.

Guitard, N. (2015). The Lost Wilderness: Rediscovering W.F. Ganong’s New Brunswick. New Brunswick, Nimbus Publishing.

Ingebritsen, S. Galloway, D. (2014). Coastal Subsidence and Relative Sea Level Rise, Environmental Research Letters, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/9/091002

Rees, R. (2017). New Brunswick was his country, New Brunswick, Nimbus Publishing.

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