Although he made important contributions to biology and classical literature, Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson is best known for using mathematics and physics to study the structure, function, and development of living things. His father was a classical scholar and educator, and his mother was the daughter of a veterinary surgeon. D’Arcy’s mother died giving birth to him, and he consequently formed an intensely strong bond with his father, who profoundly influenced his son’s character and career. The elder Thompson, a passionate humanist with advanced views on education, was fluent in Latin and Greek, which he taught to his young son, who learned to read, write, and speak these classical languages with astonishing ease. After attending Edinburgh Academy, the young Thompson entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student in 1877.
In 1880 Thompson won a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he studied zoology under Francis M. Balfour and physiology under Michael Foster. In 1883, he achieved first-class honors in his exams for his B.A. degree, and during the following year he taught physiology under Foster’s direction. He began his sixty-four-year association with University College, Dundee, in 1884, when he was appointed professor of biology. (When this college was incorporated into the University of St. Andrews in 1917, he assumed the chair of natural history at the united college.) In Dundee, he compiled a bibliography of world literature on protozoa, sponges, coelenterates, and worms, which was published in 1885, and he translated Hermann Müller’s monumental treatise Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten in 1893 under the title The Fertilisation of Flowers. To aid his teaching, Thompson built a museum of zoology at Dundee. He also combined his expertise in science with his immense classical learning to publish A Glossary of Greek Birds in 1895. As a member of the British-American commission on the fur-seal fisheries in the Bering Sea, he traveled to the Pribilof Islands in 1896 and 1897, during which time he learned much about marine phenomena that he would later publish in reports and scientific papers on oceanography.
After returning to Scotland and his teaching duties, he married Maureen Drury in 1901, a union that would eventually result in three daughters. Thompson, an entertaining conversationalist, was an attractive man, said to have “the build of a Viking” and “the pride of bearing that comes from good looks known to be possessed.” Nevertheless, he was more the scholar than a social creature, and his wife provided him with the “peace, quiet, and freedom” that he valued. He eventually published more than three hundred papers in a wide variety of fields. His publications in the classics led to his becoming president of an important classical association. His mathematical papers appeared in the journals of the Royal Society and other scientific organizations. His oceanographic studies and interest in the conservation of fisheries and fur seals in northern Europe led to his becoming a founding member of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. He served on this council from 1902 to 1947, and for many years he was chairman of its Statistical Committee and editor of the Bulletin statistique.
In his 1911 presidential address to a section of a British scientific association, Thompson spoke on the “greater problems of biology,” in which he discussed what he called “the exploration of the borderline of morphology and physics.” His 1908 paper in the journal Nature on the shapes of eggs and the causes that determine them had already shown how his thinking about biological structure was evolving. He was taking a new approach in which he stressed the mathematical aspects of organic form. These studies, which he continued to develop during World War I, culminated in a book, first published in 1917, that P. B. Medawar has called “beyond comparison the finest...
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