D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson founded a teaching and research museum in Dundee, in Scotland. He was a whaler, a fur seal man. He was also a collector of Arctic fauna – polar animals.
Thompson shaped biology and art a century ago. His 1917 publication, On Growth and Form, highlights the wide-ranging influence of his work. This publication was commemorated by an exhibition, ‘A Sketch of the Universe: Art, Science and the Influence of D’Arcy Thompson’ at the Edinburgh City Art Centre. How does a whaler become a biologist and classicist? How does a whaler become the first proponent of the mathematical beauty of nature?
Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) was born in Edinburgh on 2 May to Fanny Gamgee and D’Arcy Thompson, professor of Greek at Queen’s Colleg in Galway, Ireland. His mother died soon after his birth and he was raised by his grandfather, Joseph Gamgee, a veterinary surgeon. Thompson was going to study medicine, but chose zoology at Trinity College in the University of Cambridge in England, graduating in Natural Science in 1883.
In 1884, he was appointed professor of biology at the University College in 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 1956, the building was scheduled for demolition and Thompson’s collection was dispersed. Scholars have been trying to recover its treasures ever since.
He married Maureen Drury of Ireland in 1901 and had three daughters.
Although awarded the Darwin Medal in 1946, in the 1940s he was not following Darwin’s genetics studies. Thompson was fascinated by tiny, single-celled shelled organisms such as foraminifera and radiolaria. He was convinced (rightly) that their wildly diverse shell shapes play no evolutionary role: they arise at random, their beauty emerging from the self-organising properties of matter, not from any biological code.
Genetics explains why all dogs look like dogs. Thompson did something different: he studied why dogs look the way they do. What the argument in On Growth and Form proposes is the convergence of art and science. Modern computerized studies call it LifeSpace, offering degrees in animation, medical art and medical imaging. But Thompson had no computers in his day.
So what was his involvement in whaling? 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. His final report for the government drew attention not only to the declining fur seal numbers, but also to the near extinction of the sea otter and whale populations. He became one of the first scientists to advocate for conservation agreements. His recommendations contributed to the issuing of species protection orders. He subsequently became Scientific Adviser to the Fisheries Board of Scotland.
On his expeditions, 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 has grown in importance in the study of conservation, as well as plant and animal forms, where mathematical beauty fascinates both scientists and artists. On Growth and Form is also a classical text for architects “for its exploration of natural geometries in the dynamics of growth and physical processes.’’
Peter Medawar, the 1960 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, called the book On Growth and Form “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue.”