D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson by David Raitt Robertson Burt

David Raitt Robertson Burt, Lecturer in Zoology at the University of St Andrews, wrote about Natural History at the University of St Andrews in James B Salmond (ed.), Veterum Laudes (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1950), 108-119. We give an extract from his article where he writes about D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson:

In 1917 Professor D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson came to the United College from University College, Dundee, where he had been Professor since 1884, and he held the Chair of Natural History in the United College until his death in 1948.

He was born on 2nd May 1860, the son of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, previously classical master at the Edinburgh Academy and at that time Professor of Greek in Queen's College, Galway. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy (1870-77) where he was a member of Clyde's class, in which there were a number of boys who afterwards became famous in science or achieved distinction in other spheres. Amongst those who turned to science were, William Herdman, John S Haldane and Diarmid Noel Paton, all of whom became University Professors and Fellows of the Royal Society. Like his two predecessors in the United College D'Arcy Thompson was a student at the University of Edinburgh. There he studied medicine for two years and learned anatomical dissections and museum work in the laboratory of John Goodsir and William Turner, and was introduced to the wider aspects of zoology by Wyville Thomson who had but recently returned from the famous voyages of the Challenger. He went from Edinburgh to Cambridge where he studied under F M Balfour and Michael Foster, and after graduating he taught physiology for a year under the latter. While at Cambridge, to help pay his way through College, he translated Müller's great work on the fertilization of flowers, which was published in 1883 with an introduction by Charles Darwin, one of the very last of his writings. It was on the cards that D'Arcy Thompson should translate Focke's hybridization of flowers, but the ultimate choice of Müller's work was that with the widest appeal. Otherwise, as he speculated later, he might have anticipated the discovery of Mendel by twenty years. At the age of twenty-four he was appointed to the newly-created Chair of Biology, later changed to Natural History, in University College, Dundee, and there he laboured for thirty-three years.

During this period he built up his department with its teaching museum, which included a skeleton of the extinct Steller's Sea Cow that he brought with other material from the Bering Sea and Pribylov Islands and considerable collections brought him by whaling skippers of Dundee. This little museum was unique in its character as a museum of arctic zoology.

With a love and understanding of the classics which he acquired naturally from his father, with an inherited bent for natural science which was nurtured by his grandfather Joseph Gamgee who brought him up, and with his own almost infinite capacity for learning, he became one of the greatest scholars of his age. His teaching and his work exhibited a prodigious depth of classical, biological and mathematical knowledge, a sympathetic insight into the personalities of his scientific predecessors, and an effortless felicity in his command of the English language. In each problem that he considered, he recognised the fundamental and elementary and at the same time he saw it in its widest setting. This outlook is apparent in his work on the British-American enquiry into the fur-seal industry, in his work on the International Council for the study of the sea, and above all in his book On Growth and Form. When he turned to the wider aspects of oceanographical and hydrographical research his mathematics gave him an approach that previous workers had lacked. It is a small point, but significant, that his work on sea-temperatures was illustrated by three dimensional charts and although he used Lalanne's method in superimposing temperatures on his time-space diagrams he saw the application of the same method elsewhere and introduced it, but with superimposed isobars, to the Meteorological Office to illustrate the monthly summary of weather.

Although the kind of problem that had been engaging his attention was apparent in his note to Nature of 1908, On the shapes of eggs and the causes which determine them, a clear statement on one of the fields of study that he was to make his own was seen in Magnalia Naturae, his presidential address to the zoological section of the British Association three years later. He discussed, on that occasion, what he called the "exploration of the borderline of morphology and physics," not a new subject, but one that he considered well worth investigating. He says that there are no problems connected with morphology that appeal so closely to his mind, or to his temperament as those that are related to mechanical considerations, to mathematical laws, or to physical and chemical processes. This became fully apparent on the appearance of On Growth and Form in 1917. These problems were also recognised by Bell Pettigrew in his Design in Nature and although the subject matter in both works is often similar and sometimes identical, Bell Pettigrew went little beyond a First Cause. D'Arcy Thompson pursued his investigations "according to the accepted discipline of the physical sciences," in the light of properties of matter and forms of energy, and elucidated, often in the simpler mathematics of the Greeks, the mathematical aspects of organic form. He kept an open mind on the question of vitalism, or "the belief that something other than physical forces animates and sustains the dust of which we are made."

It was not that he was blind to the other approaches to Reality but he knew no way of studying the material aspect of a living thing otherwise than by "the help of physical and chemical methods and of the mathematical laws on which these sciences rest in their turn." His position on this point is made abundantly clear in the following passage from his contribution to the Symposium: are physical, biological and psychological categories irreducible? "It is difficult to serve two masters, but it is also difficult in this case to understand that the Master is One. There is a certain castle among the famous castles of Touraine, and in it a great artist fashioned a staircase - a marvel, a very jewel of a stair. Round the central newel of the staircase wind side by side two separate stairs; the climber by the one stair sees nothing of those who pass or cross him on the other; there is no passage-way in between - until you come out at the top. So is it, I suppose, with the teleological and the mechanical categories, and my path lies by way of these last. I know that there is another ladder towards reality, but I am contented with my own. I have been told that Galileo and Newton were at the building of it; and I am heartened by the sight of great names scribbled on the wall."

In On Growth and Form the light of his genius brings into view new and fundamental truths and gathers scattered truths into a unified whole.

Team work, or directed research did not appeal to him and he founded no school of research in St Andrews, but elsewhere his speculations have been the stimulus for others to explore and develop his theme. On the occasion of his completing sixty years as a professor a volume of Essays on Growth and Form was published as a tribute to him. It is written by his fellow-workers in this and other countries and is a recognition of his work in one of the fields that he made his own.

His contribution to pure classical scholarship is seen in his Glossary of Greek Birds (1895), Aristotle: Historia Animalium (a translation, in 1910), and his Glossary of Greek Fishes (1947). These, and numerous contributions to the Classical Review and other journals, justly brought him the Presidency of the Classical Association.

His great versatility in other directions can be seen in the list of his published writings compiled by Mr George H. Bushnell and appearing in the " Festschrift," Essays on Growth and Form. This list gives us a vista of the joys of a life-time of study, but the nature of On Growth and Form is such that we almost cease to be astonished by one whose place must be secure amongst the Immortals.

He maintained the Scottish tradition in the teaching of natural history, where there never had been felt the restricting influence of T H Huxley's type-system which dominated so much of the teaching of zoology elsewhere. Generations of students passed through his hands and the same pellucid style and learning that characterized all he wrote and said turned his courses of lectures into an inspiring and liberal education.


Last Updated July 2012