BAIN, FRANCIS, farmer, scientist, and author; b. 25 Feb. 1842 on the family farm in Lot 32, North River, P.E.I., son of William Bain and Ellen Dockendorff; m. 1876 Caroline Clark, and they had three daughters and six sons; d. there 20 Nov. 1894.
As a boy, Francis Bain was fond of reading and developed a liking for natural science. His education began in the home of the Baptist minister at North River, and later he attended a school in the district. In his early teens he joined Dr Thomas Leeming’s class in Charlottetown for one winter, and several years later he attended the city’s Central Academy for one term. After the death of his older brother in 1862, the family farm became solely his responsibility and formal schooling was curtailed, but on his own he continued studies of classics, mathematics, French, and German. He had a reputation for being strongly religious and for having a shy and humble disposition; apart from that, little was published or is remembered about his personality.
In the 1860s, in spite of many demands made on his time by farm and family, Bain began travelling all over the Island to pursue his interest in natural science. Largely on his own initiative he became an authority on its shells, insects, plants, birds, rocks, and fossils. A journal begun in 1865 reveals his exceptional skill as an observer of the natural world. Notwithstanding these wide-ranging investigations Bain considered himself foremost a geologist. He mapped the province’s bedrock, and collected, illustrated, described, and identified a large number of fossils. Bain’s knowledge of geology involved him in one of the major issues of post-confederation Prince Edward Island politics, that of demanding federal compliance with the promise made in 1873 to provide continuous communication with the mainland. In 1882, after a preliminary investigation, Bain concluded that it was possible to dig a tunnel beneath the Northumberland Strait linking Cape Traverse, P.E.I., to Cape Tormentine, N.B. Ten years later he was engaged for four months by the federal government to investigate the feasibility of constructing such a tunnel. The government, however, remained reluctant to undertake the project.
As Bain progressed in his studies he made the acquaintance of a number of local naturalists, including David Laird*, Lawrence White Watson, John MacSwain, and Donald Montgomery*. Bain’s reputation among his peers for careful and thorough observations resulted in his becoming a local contact for scientists and naturalists elsewhere in Canada and in the United States. One opportunity to play this role arose when a farmer in New London, Benjamin McLeod, found a fossil while digging a well there. Informed of the find, Bain identified it in 1883 as Bathygnathus borealis, a reptile which since 1867 had been considered a dinosaur. When John William Dawson, an eminent Canadian geologist to whom Bain sent the fossil, confirmed the assessment, Bain attained the distinction of having made the earliest recorded identification of a dinosaur fossil in Canada. (After 1905 this reptile was no longer considered a dinosaur.) Dawson recognized Bain’s contributions to geology by naming in 1890 a new species of fossil fern, discovered by Bain on St Peters Island in Hillsborough Bay, Tylodendron baini.
Bain’s enthusiasm to share his learning led him to engage in extensive writing and lecturing. In November 1881 he began a column in Charlottetown’s Daily Examiner entitled “Notes of a naturalist.” During the next 11 years he published more than 50 articles on weather, geology, birds, plants, fossils, and accounts of his excursions across the Island. In this column Bain demonstrated good literary ability, an infectious sense of wonder, and a profound scientific understanding of his subjects, all of which rendered his writings far superior to those of his local contemporaries. His observations on the geological history of Prince Edward Island especially were received with enthusiasm by the general public and with respect by colleagues both at home and elsewhere. Bain’s column showed his interest in the practical application of scientific knowledge. For example, he gave farmers advice on how to reduce the prevalence of rust spores on grain, suggested improvements in the management of the then-declining lobster fishery, and championed chickadees because they ate the eggs of aphids “by the thousand.” Bain did not restrict himself to popular writing. Between 1881 and 1893 he published at least 20 papers in some half-dozen Canadian and American scientific journals. His articles included lists and records of birds, shells, plants, butterflies, fossils, and geological formations. His career as a public speaker, begun at least as early as 1885, received new impetus with the founding in Charlottetown of the Natural History Society on 26 March 1889. Of its members, he appears to have been the most dedicated to informing Islanders about the natural history and geology of their province. He spoke at the society’s first public meeting, on 2 July, and over the years he gave several lectures to it and other societies on botany, geology, and the proposed tunnel to New Brunswick, often illustrated with his own drawings.
At the peak of his career Bain wrote two books. The natural history of Prince Edward Island, published in Charlottetown in 1890, detailed the geology, botany, and zoology of the province, and was authorized as a textbook for the Island’s primary schools. A year later his Birds of Prince Edward Island was published. A record of about 152 species, it was the first substantial contribution to Island ornithology. Although in recent years more comprehensive works have been published, Bain’s book remains for some species the most thorough description available.
In June 1894 Bain injured his left shoulder while lifting a heavy weight, and his left arm became paralysed; a little later he suffered a slight stroke. Late in the summer, after lecturing on geology at the Summer School of Science in Charlottetown, he went to Boston hoping to regain his health. Within three weeks of his return he was stricken with a paralysis from which he never recovered. He died on 20 Nov. 1894 and was buried in the Baptist cemetery in East Wiltshire.
Francis Bain was the first native-born Islander to contribute substantially to the natural science investigations of the province, and he did so in the absence of comfortable financial means and professional training. Despite enjoying widespread appreciation and respect during his lifetime and being honoured with a granite monument in Charlottetown unveiled on 25 Nov. 1905 by Lieutenant Governor Donald Alexander MacKinnon, Bain appears to have been quickly forgotten. The ephemeral nature of his celebrity is somewhat surprising considering his voluminous legacy of books, journals, lecture notes, newspaper articles, and unpublished manuscripts. Although aspects of his work, including some of his theories on the geological history of the Island, have been critically reassessed, the significance of his career remains undiminished. Bain’s sound knowledge of a wide variety of natural science topics, and his recognition of the relationships between plants, animals, and the environment, mark him as the first Islander to whom the contemporary term ecologist can appropriately be applied.
[Francis Bain is the author of The natural history of Prince Edward Island and Birds of Prince Edward Island: their habits and characteristics, published in Charlottetown in 1890 and 1891. The most complete list of his publications appears in L. W. Watson, “Francis Bain, geologist,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 9 (1903),
PAPEI, Acc. 2541/6. P.E.I. Museum, Naomi Newson, biog. of Francis Bain, n.d. (copy). Daily Examiner, 11 Feb. 1882; 18 Aug. 1883; August 1887; 12, 27 Nov. 1889; 20 Nov. 1894. Island Guardian, 22 Nov. 1894. M. K. Cullen, “The transportation issue, 1873–1973,” Canada’s smallest prov. (Bolger), 232–63. D. S. Erskine, The plants of Prince Edward Island (Can., Dept. of Agriculture, Plant Research Institute, Pub., no.1088, [Ottawa], 1960), 6–7. Winifred Cairns, “The Natural History Society of P.E.I., part I: 1889–1891,” P.E.I., Natural Hist. Soc., Newsletter (Charlottetown), no.70 (March–April 1983): 12–15. W. E. Godfrey, “Birds of Prince Edward Island,” Can., National Museum, Annual report (Ottawa), 1952–53: 159. Guardian (Charlottetown), 27 Nov. 1905. Kathy Martin, “The first year of the Prince Edward Island Natural History Society,” P.E.I., Natural Hist. Soc., Newsletter, no.30 (March 1978): 4–6; “Francis Bain, farmer naturalist,” Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.6 (spring–summer 1979): 3–8.