D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

D'Arcy Thompson
Born (1860-05-02)2 May 1860
Died 21 June 1948(1948-06-21) (aged 88)
St Andrews
Nationality Scottish
Fields Biology, Natural history, Mathematics
Institutions Tertiary education:
University of Edinburgh Medical School (medicine)
Trinity College, Cambridge (BA)
Professional institution:
University College, Dundee, University of St Andrews
Known for On Growth and Form
Notable awards Linnean Medal (1938)
Darwin Medal (1946)
Spouse Maureen Drury (m. 1901)
Children 3 daughters

Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson CB FRS FRSE (2 May 1860 – 21 June 1948) was a Scottish biologist, mathematician and classics scholar. He was a pioneer of mathematical biology, travelled on expeditions to the Bering Straits and held the position of Professor of Natural History at University College, Dundee for 32 years, then at St Andrews for 31 years. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, was knighted, and received the Darwin Medal and the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal.

Thompson is remembered as the author of the 1917 book On Growth and Form, which led the way for the scientific explanation of morphogenesis, the process by which patterns are formed in plants and animals.

Thompson's description of the mathematical beauty of nature stimulated thinkers as diverse as Julian Huxley, Conrad Hal Waddington, Alan Turing, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Eduardo Paolozzi, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe.

Early life and education

Thompson was born in Edinburgh to Irish parents Fanny Gamgee and D'Arcy Thompson from The Crescent, Galway (1829–1902), Professor of Greek at Queen's College, Galway.[1][lower-alpha 1] His mother died shortly after childbirth[2] and he was brought up by his maternal grandfather Joseph Gamgee,[3] a veterinary surgeon.[2]

From 1870 to 1877 he attended The Edinburgh Academy and won the 1st Edinburgh Academical Club Prize in 1877.[4] In 1878, he matriculated at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Two years later, he moved South to study zoology at Trinity College in the University of Cambridge.[5] As a student in Cambridge, D'Arcy Thompson was first a sizar, then received a scholarship.[2] He also translated Hermann Müller's work on the fertilization of flowers,[6] to earn money on the side, and because it appealed to him. It was published in 1883 with an introduction by Charles Darwin. He speculated later, that if he had chosen to translate Wilhelm Olbers Focke's hybridization of flowers, he "might have anticipated the discovery of Mendel by twenty years".[3] He obtained the Bachelor of Arts in Natural Science in 1883.[1]


From 1883-1884, Thompson stayed in Cambridge as so-called Junior Demonstrator in physiology, teaching students.[1] In 1884, he was appointed Professor of Biology (later Natural History) at University College, Dundee, a post he held for 32 years. One of his first tasks was to create a Zoology Museum for teaching and research, now named after him.

In 1896 and 1897, he went on expeditions to the Bering Straits, representing the British Government in an international inquiry into the fur seal industry to assess the fur seal's declining numbers. "Thompson's diplomacy avoided an international incident" between Russia and the United States which both had hunting interests in this area.[7]

His final report for the government drew attention also to the near extinction of the sea otter and whale populations. He became one of the first to press for conservation agreements, and his recommendations contributed to the issuing of species protection orders. He subsequently became Scientific Adviser to the Fisheries Board of Scotland, and later representative to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.[7]

He took the opportunity to collect many valuable specimens for his museum, one of the largest in the country at the time, specialising in Arctic zoology due to his links to the Dundee whalers. The D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum still has (in 2012) the Japanese spider crab that he collected,[8] and the rare skeleton of a Steller's Sea Cow.[9]

Thompson was inspired by the work of Albrecht Dürer.[10]

While in Dundee, Thompson was on the committee of management of the Dundee Private Hospital for Women.[11] He was also a founder member of the Dundee Social Union, and pressed for "it to buy four slum properties in the town which they renovated so that the poorest families of Dundee could live there."[2]

In 1917, aged 57, Thompson was appointed to the Chair of Natural History at St Andrews University, remaining there for the last 31 years of his life.[1] In 1918 he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on The Fish of the Sea.[12] The German British mathematician Walter Ledermann described in his memoir how he as an assistant in Mathematics met biology professor Thompson at St Andrews in the mid 1930s and how Thompson "was fond of exercising his skills as an amateur of mathematics", that "he used quite sophisticated mathematical methods to elucidate the shapes that occur in the living world" and "[...]differential equations, a subject which evidently lay outside d'Arcy Thompson's fields of knowledge at that time." Ledermann wrote how on one occasion he helped him working and writing out the answer to his question.[13]

In Country Life magazine in October 1923, he wrote:

"This is but a little town, and our lives are somewhat narrow who dwell therein; but its traditions are not lost, nor the lessons of its long history thrown away....the stones cry out to us as we pass....only last week I went down to the little ancient church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris, and passed through it to stand for a moment (as I often do) in the deserted garden whence one looks across the river and gets the finest view of all of Notre Dame....here have been civilization, religion and learning for a few short centuries longer than in St Andrews....yet these two spots have a like influence on my mind and rejoice my heart with a train of shadowy memories."
D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1923) The Essay on St Andrews.[14]


Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1916,[15] he was knighted in 1937 and received the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society in 1938.[1] He was awarded the Darwin Medal in 1946.[16] For his revised On Growth and Form, he was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1942.[17]

Family life

On 4 July 1901 D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson married Maureen, elder daughter of William Drury, of Dublin.[1] His wife and three daughters survived him.[5]

He died at his home in St Andrews after flying to India in 1947, at the age of 86, to attend the Science Congress at Delhi and remained in India for some months. Upon returning, "he suffered a breakdown in health, from which he never fully recovered." [5]

On Growth and Form

Main article: On Growth and Form
On Growth and Form, 1992 Dover reprint

Thompson's most famous work, On Growth and Form was written in Dundee, mostly in 1915, though wartime shortages and his many last-minute alterations delayed publication until 1917.[18] The central theme of the book is that biologists of its author's day overemphasized evolution as the fundamental determinant of the form and structure of living organisms, and underemphasized the roles of physical laws and mechanics. He had previously criticized Darwinism in his paper Some Difficulties of Darwinism in an 1884 meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science.[19] On Growth and Form explained in detail why he believed Darwinism to be an inadequate explanation for the origin of new species. He did not reject natural selection, but regarded it as secondary to the origin of biological form.[20] Instead, he advocated structuralism as an alternative to natural selection in governing the form of species, with the smallest hint of vitalism as the unseen driving force.[21]

On the concept of allometry, the study of the relationship of body size and shape, Thompson wrote:[22]

An organism is so complex a thing, and growth so complex a phenomenon, that for growth to be so uniform and constant in all the parts as to keep the whole shape unchanged would indeed be an unlikely and an unusual circumstance. Rates vary, proportions change, and the whole configuration alters accordingly.

Using a mass of examples, Thompson pointed out correlations between biological forms and mechanical phenomena. He showed the similarity in the forms of jellyfish and the forms of drops of liquid falling into viscous fluid, and between the internal supporting structures in the hollow bones of birds and well-known engineering truss designs. He described phyllotaxis (numerical relationships between spiral structures in plants) and its relationship to the Fibonacci sequence.[23]

Thompson illustrated the transformation of Argyropelecus olfersi into Sternoptyx diaphana by applying a 20° shear mapping.

Perhaps the most famous part of the work is chapter XVII, "The Comparison of Related Forms," where Thompson explored the degree to which differences in the forms of related animals could be described by means of relatively simple mathematical transformations.[24]

The book is a work in the "descriptive" tradition; Thompson did not articulate his insights in the form of experimental hypotheses that can be tested. He was aware of this, saying that "This book of mine has little need of preface, for indeed it is 'all preface' from beginning to end."[25]


Interdisciplinary influence

On Growth and Form has inspired thinkers including the biologists Julian Huxley and Conrad Hal Waddington, the mathematician Alan Turing, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and artists including Richard Hamilton,[26] Eduardo Paolozzi,[26] and Ben Nicholson.[26] Jackson Pollock owned a copy.[27] It is seen as a classic text in architecture and is admired by architects "for its exploration of natural geometries in the dynamics of growth and physical processes."[28] The architects and designers Le Corbusier, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe were inspired by the book.[27]

Peter Medawar, the 1960 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, called it "the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue".[29]

150th anniversary

In 2010, the 150th anniversary of his birth was celebrated with events and exhibitions at the Universities of Dundee and St Andrews; the main lecture theatre in the University of Dundee's Tower Building was renamed in his honour, a publication exploring his work in Dundee and the history of his Zoology Museum was published by University of Dundee Museum Services, and an exhibition on his work was held in the city.[30]

Museum and archives

The original Zoology Museum at Dundee became neglected after his move to St Andrews. In 1956 the building, which it was housed in, was scheduled for demolition and the museum collection was dispersed, with some parts going to the British Museum. A teaching collection was retained and forms the core of the University of Dundee's D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum.[31]

In 2011, the University of Dundee was awarded a £100,000 grant by The Art Fund to build a collection of art inspired by his ideas and collections, much of which is displayed in the D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum in Dundee.[31]

Special Collections at the University of St Andrews hold Thompson's personal papers which include over 30,000 items.[32] Archive Services at the University of Dundee hold records of his time at Dundee, and a collection of papers relating to Thompson collected by Professor Alexander David Peacock, a later holder of the chair of Natural History at University College, Dundee.[33][34]

Selected publications

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published around 300 articles and books during his career.[7]

--- 1945 Edition at archive.org

See also


  1. A D'Arcy Wentworth (1762–1827) narrowly escaped conviction on a fourth charge of highway robbery by volunteering for transportation to Australia as an assistant surgeon in June 1790.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth (THM880DW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. 1 2 3 4 J J O'Connor and E F Robertson D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson Biography School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland, October 2003, retrieved 30 March 2016
  3. 1 2 David Raitt Robertson Burt Obituary in James B Salmond (ed.), Veterum Laudes (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1950), 108-119
  4. The Edinburgh Academy Register 1824-1914, printed by T & A Constable for the Edinburgh Academical Club, 1914. Page 328.
  5. 1 2 3 PROF SIR D'ARCY THOMPSON DEAD, The Scotman, 22 June 1948
  6. Müller H. 1883. The fertilisation of flowers. Macmillan, London. Translated by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson.
  7. 1 2 3 Lecture Theatre renamed in honour of D'arcy Thompson University of Dundee, External Relations, Press Office, 14 March 2006
  8. "D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum - Some Highlights from the Collections". University of Dundee. 2012. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  9. Burt, David Raitt Robertson. "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  10. Richards, Oscar W. (1955). "D'Arcy W. Thompson's mathematical transformation and the analysis of growth". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 63 (4): 456–473. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1955.tb32103.x.
  11. The Dundee Directory 1910-1911. Dundee: James P. Mathew & Co. 1910. p. 114.
  12. "C omplete l ist of CHRISTMAS LECTURES" (PDF). The Royal Institution. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  13. Walter Ledermann Encounters of a Mathematician, chapter 4, Emigration: St Andrews 1936 - 1938 on MacTutor biography by J O'Connor and E F Robertson, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland, October 2003
  14. Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth (1923). The Essay on St Andrews.
  15. Dobell, Clifford (1949). "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. 1860-1948". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 6 (18): 599–526. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1949.0015. JSTOR 768942.
  16. "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  17. "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on 29 December 2010. Retrieved 16 February 2011.
  18. Jarron, Matthew (2013). "Editorial". Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. Taylor and Francis. 38 (1): 1–11. doi:10.1179/0308018813Z.00000000037.
  19. Whitfield, John (2006). In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature. National Academies Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-309-09681-2.
  20. Margaret A. Boden. (2008). Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Oxford University Press. p. 1255. ISBN 978-0199543168
  21. Ruse, Michael (2013). "17. From Organicism to Mechanism-and Halfway Back?". In Henning, Brian G.; Scarfe, Adam. Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology. Lexington Books. p. 419.
  22. Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth (1942). On Growth and Form. Courier Corporation. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-486-67135-2.
  23. Richards, Oscar W. (1955). "D'Arcy W. Thompson's mathematical transformation and the analysis of growth". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 63 (4): 456–473. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1955.tb32103.x.
  24. John Milnor. "Geometry of Growth and Form: Commentary on D'Arcy Thompson". video. Institute for Advanced Study. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  25. Thompson, 1917. 'Prefatory Note', first paragraph.
  26. 1 2 3 "About D'Arcy". D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  27. 1 2 "Sketching the Universe: Artists' Responses to D'Arcy Thompson". University of Dundee. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  28. Beesley, Philip; Bonnemaison, Sarah (2008). On Growth and Form: Organic Architecture and Beyond (PDF). Tuns Press and Riverside Architectural Press. pp. 7 and passim. ISBN 978-0-929112-54-1.
  29. Bretscher, Otto. Linear algebra with applications. 3rd edition. Pearson, 2005. Page 66.
  30. "Days of Celebration to Mark 150th Anniversary of D'Arcy Thompson". City of Dundee. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  31. 1 2 "The D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum". University of Dundee. Retrieved 28 February 2013.
  32. "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) (ms9013-29950; ms 37781; ms40500-50161)". University of St Andrews. Archived from the original on 12 March 2012. Retrieved 24 October 2011.
  33. "D'Arcy Thompson memorabilia". Archive Services Online Catalogue. University of Dundee. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  34. "Material relating to D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson at Dundee University Archives". University of Dundee. Archived from the original on 4 April 2013. Retrieved 16 April 2013.

Further reading

External links

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