D'Arcy Wentworth Thomson

Scotsman obituary

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"Admirable Crichton" of Scottish Scholarship.


Professor Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Professor of Natural History in the University of St Andrews, died at his home in St Andrews yesterday morning at the age of 88 years.

By his death Scotland has lost one of her greatest academic figures, and a much-loved, and outstanding personality.

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson was born on May 2, 1860. His father, an Irishman, also named D'Arcy Wentworth, was then teaching in the Edinburgh Academy (where one of his pupils was Robert Louis Stevenson), and he later became Professor of Greek at Queen's College, Galway.

D'Arcy Thompson was brought up in Edinburgh. He went first to a preparatory school, taught by a tall, red-bearded Orkney man, who used to take his pupils out into the country round Edinburgh on Saturdays and teach them the plants, hedgerows, birds, and insects, and it was there that D'Arcy Thompson first got his lasting love for natural history.

From this school he went to the Edinburgh Academy, where for the seven years from 1870-77 he was in Dr Clyde's class. That class provided some remarkable men, for of their number one was awarded the Victoria Cross, one got his peerage and a seat in the Cabinet, four (including Sir D'Arcy) became Fellows of the Royal Society, and one was a Royal Academician.

On leaving the Edinburgh Academy he attended classes at Edinburgh University, and sat under Professor Wyville Thomson, then newly returned from his great voyage in the Challenger. In 1879 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A, and in the same year he published his first scientific paper.


He remained at Cambridge as a demonstrator in physiology until 1884, when he was appointed as the first occupant of, the Chair of Biology on the foundation of University College, Dundee. There he joined a staff which, though small, was exceptionally brilliant, and began his long career as a professor. In 1888 the Chair of Biology became the Chair of Natural History, and when, in 1897, Dundee College was recognised as part of the University of St Andrews, he began his many years as a distinguished member of the faculty of Scotland's oldest university. In 1917 that association became yet closer when he became professor of the same subject at St Andrews, a post he adorned until his death.

Sir D'Arcy early established an international reputation as a zoologist and an expert on sea fisheries. In 1897, as British delegate, he attended the Behring Sea Fisheries Conference; he was a member of the North Sea Conferences at Stockholm in 1899 and Christiania in 1901; and as scientific adviser to the Fishery Board for Scotland for over forty years from 1898 onwards, he played a leading part in guiding the scientific investigation of an industry of immense importance to Scotland.

It was this work that brought him the first of a long series of honours, when, in 1898, in the reign of Queen Victoria, he was made a Commander of the Bath.


But Professor Thompson was no one-subject specialist. In his mastery of all the Arts he rivalled the great figures of the Renaissance. As the son of a noted Grecian and former president of the Classical Association, he early acquired a taste for the ancient languages and literature of Greece and Rome and all his teaching and writing was suffused with the classical spirit. As early as 1895 he published "A Glossary of Greek Birds": his interpretation of Aristotle's "Historia Animalium" appeared in 1910; and in 1945, at the age of 85, he produced "A Glossary of Greek Fishes." His place as a classical scholar was recognised by his appointment in 1929 as president of the Classical Association.


Professor Thompson's scientific reputation, however, rested mainly on his work on growth and the dimensional relationships of animal forms. In 1917 he published his classic work on this subject "On Growth and Form." A new edition of this work was produced in 1942 and it still remains the foundation of all modern research into these subjects. This work, in which, by the application of mathematical methods to biological study, he proved his ability in yet another branch of learning, led to his election as an honorary member and president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society.


Many other learned societies also recognised Sir D'Arcy's encyclopaedic knowledge by conferring on him their membership and the honour of their presidencies. He was president of the Scottish Classical Association in 1935; of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh concurrently from 1934-39; and of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society from 1942 to 1946. He was also an honorary member and correspondent of a host of learned societies in Europe and the U.S.A. He was Linnean medallist in 1938, and in 1946 was awarded the Royal Society's Darwin Medal.

The universities also paid tribute to his scholarship. He was Herbert Spencer Lecturer at Oxford in 1913, Huxley Lecturer at Birmingham in 1917, and Lowell Lecturer at Harvard University in 1936. He received the degree of LL.D. from Aberdeen University in 1933, and from Edinburgh University in 1934, and in the same year was capped D.Sc. at Trinity College, Dublin. He was knighted in 1937.


No mere chronicle of his achievements, however, can do justice to Professor Thompson, for it was his personality that made him so greatly loved and respected. Tall, bearded, venerable and kindly, he had an unconquerable zest for life and adventure. A master of the now almost forgotten art of talking at large, he had a beautiful command of the English language, and could speak on a multitude of subjects from a mind stored with the treasures of all the Arts. Generations of students regarded him as the embodiment of all a professor should be, and his wide scholarship, vivid personality, freedom from pedantry, and notable wit and vigour, marked him out from the usual run of professors of these days when a chair is too often the seat of a specialist of narrow range. That vigour and love of adventure were well demonstrated by his remarkable feat in flying to India early last year, at the age of 86, to attend the Science Congress at Delhi. He remained in India after the close of the Congress, returning to this country some months later.

Shortly after his return, however, he suffered a breakdown in health, from which he never fully recovered.

He is survived by Lady Thompson and three daughters.

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson died on Monday 21 June 1948 and The Scotsman printed this obituary on the following day.