Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
In his studies of natural history, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson combined on the one hand a penchant for the application of mathematics, and on the other hand an enthusiastic interest in the classics. His most significant work was On Growth and Form (1917), in which he departed from the prevailing wisdom of his time by showing mathematical properties in the form of various natural structures.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 2, 1860, Thompson was the son of a classics professor also named D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. His mother, Fanny, died giving birth to him. From an early age, Thompson was influenced by the mother's family, the Gamgees, which included many scientists and doctors. In addition, his father's encouragement ensured a lifelong interest in Greek and Latin, both languages in which Thompson became highly adept.
While a 19-year-old student of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Thompson published his first papers. In these he discussed hydroid taxonomy, the classification of invertebrate animals, as well as a particular fossil seal from the Pleistocene era. Later, he went on to Trinity College, and during this time published a translation of a book by German biologist Hermann Muller. The volume is notable for its preface by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), one of Darwin's last published writings.
Thompson took a position as professor of biology at University College in Dundee, where in 1884 he established a teaching museum of zoology. University College merged with the University of St. Andrews in 1897, and Thompson accepted its chair of natural history, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life. In 1901 Thompson married Maureen Drury, with whom he had three daughters.
From 1885 onward Thompson began writing on a wide array of zoological subjects, discussing everything from the recently discovered ear of the sunfish to a fossil mammal thought to be a close relative of whales, but which Thompson showed to be more closely related to seals. In 1896 the British government sent Thompson to Alaska to help settle a dispute with the United States over fur-seal fisheries, and in 1902 he was sent as the British representative to the newly established International Council for the Study of the Sea.
Drawing on his interest in the classics, Thompson published A Glossary of Greek Birds (1895), which he followed a half-century later with A Glossary of Greek Fishes (1947). He also published an annotated translation of Aristotle's Historia Animalium. Around the same time, he began performing his most important work, applying a new mathematical approach to morphology, or the biological study of structure and form. This led to the publication of On Growth and Form, in which he showed that the structures in a wide array of natural phenomena, such as honeycombs or the flight patterns of moths, followed mathematical principles.
Elected to the Royal Society in 1916, Thompson was knighted in 1937, and received a number of other awards, among them the Darwin Medal in 1946. In that year, he went to India as a member of a Royal Society delegation to the India Science Congress, but while there he contracted pneumonia and never recovered. Thompson died on June 21, 1948.