Authors: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish scientist and classicist

Author Works

Nonfiction:

A Glossary of Greek Birds, 1895, newedition 1936

On Aristotle as a Biologist, 1911

On Growth and Form, 1917, newedition 1942

Science and the Classics, 1940

A Glossary of Greek Fishes, 1947

Translations:

The Fertilisation of Flowers, 1893 (of Hermann Müller’s Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten)

Historia Animalium, 1910 (of Aristotle)

Miscellaneous:

A Bibliography of Protozoa, Sponges, Coelenterata, and Worms for the Years 1861-1883, 1885

Biography

Although he made important contributions to biology and classical literature, Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson is best known for using mathematics and physics to study the structure, function, and development of living things. His father was a classical scholar and educator, and his mother was the daughter of a veterinary surgeon. D’Arcy’s mother died giving birth to him, and he consequently formed an intensely strong bond with his father, who profoundly influenced his son’s character and career. The elder Thompson, a passionate humanist with advanced views on education, was fluent in Latin and Greek, which he taught to his young son, who learned to read, write, and speak these classical languages with astonishing ease. After attending Edinburgh Academy, the young Thompson entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student in 1877.{$I[AN]9810001662}{$I[A]Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth[Thompson, DArcy Wentworth]}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth[Thompson, DArcy Wentworth]}{$I[tim]1860;Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth[Thompson, DArcy Wentworth]}

In 1880 Thompson won a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he studied zoology under Francis M. Balfour and physiology under Michael Foster. In 1883, he achieved first-class honors in his exams for his B.A. degree, and during the following year he taught physiology under Foster’s direction. He began his sixty-four-year association with University College, Dundee, in 1884, when he was appointed professor of biology. (When this college was incorporated into the University of St. Andrews in 1917, he assumed the chair of natural history at the united college.) In Dundee, he compiled a bibliography of world literature on protozoa, sponges, coelenterates, and worms, which was published in 1885, and he translated Hermann Müller’s monumental treatise Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten in 1893 under the title The Fertilisation of Flowers. To aid his teaching, Thompson built a museum of zoology at Dundee. He also combined his expertise in science with his immense classical learning to publish A Glossary of Greek Birds in 1895. As a member of the British-American commission on the fur-seal fisheries in the Bering Sea, he traveled to the Pribilof Islands in 1896 and 1897, during which time he learned much about marine phenomena that he would later publish in reports and scientific papers on oceanography.

After returning to Scotland and his teaching duties, he married Maureen Drury in 1901, a union that would eventually result in three daughters. Thompson, an entertaining conversationalist, was an attractive man, said to have “the build of a Viking” and “the pride of bearing that comes from good looks known to be possessed.” Nevertheless, he was more the scholar than a social creature, and his wife provided him with the “peace, quiet, and freedom” that he valued. He eventually published more than three hundred papers in a wide variety of fields. His publications in the classics led to his becoming president of an important classical association. His mathematical papers appeared in the journals of the Royal Society and other scientific organizations. His oceanographic studies and interest in the conservation of fisheries and fur seals in northern Europe led to his becoming a founding member of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. He served on this council from 1902 to 1947, and for many years he was chairman of its Statistical Committee and editor of the Bulletin statistique.

In his 1911 presidential address to a section of a British scientific association, Thompson spoke on the “greater problems of biology,” in which he discussed what he called “the exploration of the borderline of morphology and physics.” His 1908 paper in the journal Nature on the shapes of eggs and the causes that determine them had already shown how his thinking about biological structure was evolving. He was taking a new approach in which he stressed the mathematical aspects of organic form. These studies, which he continued to develop during World War I, culminated in a book, first published in 1917, that P. B. Medawar has called “beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue.” Thompson wrote On Growth and Form to show how “[c]ell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower” are simply combinations of bits of matter that have been moved and shaped by forces acting according to the laws of physics. Like Thompson, the ancient Greeks saw the problems of the structures of living things as essentially mathematical. For example, in his chapter “On the Comparison of Related Forms,” Thompson demonstrated how related organic forms can be mapped using René Descartes’s method of coordinates. Traditionally, biologists had described the shapes of living things in their own technical terms; Thompson wanted to define these forms in the precise language of mathematics.

Though the five hundred copies of On Growth and Form that were initially published took many years to sell, the book became an object of veneration for those who appreciated Thompson’s departures from traditional biological methods. The book is now seen as a seminal scientific investigation that deeply influenced developments in such diverse fields as developmental biology, marine biology, and paleontology. Many critics praised the book as a great literary accomplishment, with its lucid style and wealth of quotations from ancient and modern writers. Other critics saw the book’s importance as freeing scientists from the fashions of the day to reveal how biology could be approached in a fresh and imaginative new way.

After the book was published, Thompson continued to write papers on morphology in the years between the two world wars. He started to revise On Growth and Form in 1922, but the work was interrupted by sundry professional duties. His many scientific papers dealt with a mind-boggling variety of topics, from the internal ear of the sunfish and the arrangement of feathers on a hummingbird to directions on how to catch a cuttlefish. He also wrote a large number of classical essays, book reviews, and obituaries. In the 1930’s he served as president of various organizations, including the Royal Society of London, and in 1936 he was invited to deliver the Lowell Lectures in Boston. Both Cambridge and Oxford gave him honorary degrees, and in 1937 he was knighted.

During World War II Thompson completed his revision of On Growth and Form. Science had developed rapidly between the times of the first and second editions, and he was aware of the new ideas in biology in genetics and evolution and the new ideas in physics in quantum mechanics. Thompson only alluded to these new ideas in the second edition, which stressed, as its ancestor had, the formative power of physical forces on living things. He continued to see evolutionary changes in terms of physical forces acting upon individual organisms in their lifetimes rather than in terms of modifications made on successive generations of organisms over long periods, the view of traditional Darwinists. In his 1942 edition Thompson, a theoretician rather than an experimenter, largely ignored experiments that had been done that threw new light on several of the findings in his 1917 edition. He also neglected the work of many chemists who had shown how the structures and functions of chemical substances can help explain how biological structures originate and act. Despite these and other criticisms, On Growth and Form continued to be highly regarded by many scholars.

Thompson’s last book marked a return to his earliest interests. In his Glossary of Greek Fishes, published in 1947, he gathered information about all the fishes mentioned in ancient Greek literature and used his immense zoological knowledge to illuminate these references. In his eighties he was asked about his feelings on death. He responded that the natural world had not yet become tedious to him but that he was prepared to acknowledge that his “long and happy holidays” on Earth had been “just enough” for him to do what he could, and he was content with his “full share of modest happiness.” He died in 1948, having recently returned from a trip to India, where he spoke to a large audience on the skeletal structure of birds. At the end, as throughout his life, he continued to integrate his loves of language and nature, seeing things that others had seen but thinking and expressing thoughts that no one else ever had.

BibliographyBonner, John Tyler. “D’Arcy Thompson.” Scientific American, August, 1952. A good place to start for those unfamiliar with Thompson.Bonner, John Tyler. Introduction to his abridged edition of On Growth and Form, by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961. A critical analysis of Thompson’s work in the light of modern scientific discoveries.Clark, W. Le Gros, and P. B. Medawar, eds. Essays on Growth and Form. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1945. This detailed discussion of Thompson’s work contains helpful analyses.Dobell, Clifford. Obituary Notices of the Fellows of the Royal Society, no. 18 (1949). Contains a good brief biography of Thompson.Newman, James R. The World of Mathematics. Vol 2. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1960. This classic anthology has an enthusiastic appraisal of Thompson’s life and achievements.Thompson, Ruth D’Arcy. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the Scholar Naturalist, 1860-1948. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Ruth’s biography of her father remains essential reading for those interested in the man and his work. The book also has a valuable postscript by P. B. Medawar.
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