Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

On Growth and Form appeared in the summer of 1917, the second of four books D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson produced in a long career as scientist, author, translator, and editor. His only volume on a strictly scientific subject, On Growth and Form was conceived by the author around 1912 and had been promised to Cambridge University Press as a little book to cost no more than two or three shillings. In the course of distilling nearly three decades of observations on the forms of plants and animals, Thompson saw his book grow to more than eight hundred pages of text and illustrations; many delays in its preparation were caused by Thompson’s severe criticism of his own writing as well as by wartime conditions.

At the time of the book’s publication, Thompson’s career had already encompassed diverse scientific studies as well as digressions into mathematics, classical literature, poetry, and philosophy. On Growth and Form was by intention both a scientific work and an evocation of the seemingly boundless universe of organic and inorganic form which had been revealed by modern science. Thompson’s appreciation of poetry and classical literature played a significant part in its writing, and the enormous impression made by the book on its first appearance was based on its style perhaps as much as on its author’s scientific achievements.

By 1922 the first edition of On Growth and Form was sold out, but Thompson...

(The entire section is 496 words.)