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Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson CB FRS[1] FRSE (2 May 1860, Edinburgh – 21 June 1948, St Andrews) was a Scottish biologist, mathematician, and classics scholar. A pioneering mathematical biologist,[2] he is mainly remembered as the author of the 1917 book On Growth and Form, written largely in Dundee in 1915. 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".[3]


D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson was the son of D'Arcy Thompson (1829–1902), Professor of Greek at Queen's College, Galway.[4] (The latter was perhaps named for D'Arcy Wentworth (1762–1827) who narrowly escaped conviction on a fourth charge of highway robbery by volunteering for transportation to Botany Bay as an assistant surgeon, arriving in June 1790.) In 1878, he matriculated at University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Two years later, he shifted his studies to Trinity College in the University of Cambridge,[5] obtaining the Bachelor of Arts in Natural Science in 1883.[4] 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 - at the time this was regarded as one of the largest in the country, specialising in Arctic zoology due to D'Arcy's links to the Dundee whalers. In 1896 and 1897, D'Arcy went on his own epic expeditions to the Bering Straits, representing the British Government in an international inquiry into the fur seal industry. He took the opportunity to collect many valuable specimens for his museum, including a Japanese spider crab (still in the museum today) and the rare skeleton of a Steller's Sea Cow.

In 1917, D'Arcy was appointed to the Chair of Natural History at St Andrews University, remaining there for the last 31 years of his life. D'Arcy Thompson became a well known and much loved figure in the town, walking its streets in gym shoes with a parrot on his shoulder, and contributing a stylish and scholarly essay on St Andrews to Country Life magazine in October 1923. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1916,[1] he was knighted in 1937 and was awarded the Darwin Medal in 1946. For his revised On Growth and Form Thompson was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1942.[6]
On Growth and Form
On Growth and Form, 1992 Dover reprint

D'Arcy's most famous work, On Growth and Form was written in Dundee, mostly in 1915, though wartime shortages and D'Arcy's many last-minute alterations delayed publication until 1917. The central theme of On Growth and Form 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 advocated structuralism as an alternative to survival of the fittest in governing the form of species.

On the concept of allometry, Thompson wrote:

"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."

Thompson pointed out example after example of 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. His observations of phyllotaxis (numerical relationships between spiral structures in plants) and the Fibonacci sequence has become a textbook staple.

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.[7]
Thompson's illustration of the transformation of Argyropelecus olfersi into Sternoptyx diaphana by applying a 20° shear mapping

Utterly sui generis, the book has never conformed to the mainstream of biological thought. It does not really include a single unifying thesis, nor, in many cases, does it attempt to establish a causal relationship between the forms emerging from physics with the comparable forms seen in biology. It is a work in the "descriptive" tradition; Thompson did not articulate his insights in the form of experimental hypotheses that can be tested. Thompson 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."

This huge (the current Dover edition is 1116pp long), classically composed and extensively illustrated tome has enchanted and stimulated several generations of biologists, architects, artists, mathematicians, and, of course, those working on the boundaries of these disciplines. There is a shorter (328pp) edition which preserves most of the material that is of interest to the modern reader.
D'Arcy 150th anniversary

The 150th anniversary of D'Arcy's birth was celebrated in 2010 with a programme of events and exhibitions at the University of Dundee and the University of St Andrews. A publication exploring D'Arcy's work in Dundee and the history of his Zoology Museum was published by University of Dundee Museum Services and launched at the opening of an exhibition, D'Arcy Thompson: Growth and Form, in the Lamb Gallery. D'Arcy displays were also staged at Discovery Point and Sensation Science Centre.
Museum and Archives

The original Zoology Museum established by D'Arcy Thompson at Dundee became neglected after his move to St. Andrews and in 1956 the building it was housed in was scheduled for demolition and the museum collection was dispersed, with some parts going to the British Museum. However some important teaching materials were retained.[8] The items which were kept now form the core of the University of Dundee's D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, which can be found in the basement of the University's Carnelley Building and is open to the public on Friday afternoons in the summer, or by appointment.[8]

Special Collections at the University of St Andrews hold D'Arcy Thompson's personal papers which include over 30,000 items.[9] Archive Services at the University of Dundee hold a collection of papers relating to D'Arcy Thompson collected by Professor Alexander David Peacock, who was a later holder of the chair of Natural History at University College, Dundee.[10]

1885. A bibliography of Protozoa, sponges, Coelenterata, and worms, including also the Polyzoa, Brachiopoda, and Tunicata, for the years 1861-1883. Cambridge Univ. Press.
1895. Glossary of Greek birds. Oxford Univ. Press.
1897. "Report by Professor D'Arcy Thompson on his mission to the Behring Sea in 1896." Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
1913. On Aristotle as a biologist with a prooemion on Herbert Spencer. Oxford Univ. Press. Being the Herbert Spencer lecture delivered before the University of Oxford, 14 February 1913.

See also

Evolutionary developmental biology


^ a b 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. edit
^ University of Dundee : External Relations : Press Office
^ Bretscher, Otto. Linear algebra with applications. 3rd edition. Pearson Education, Inc., 2005. Page 66.
^ a b Venn, J.; Venn, J. A., eds. (1922–1958). "Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth". Alumni Cantabrigienses (10 vols) (online ed.). Cambridge University Press.
^ Obituary in The Scotman
^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 16 February 2011.
^ John Milnor. "Geometry of Growth and Form: Commentary on D'Arcy Thompson". video. Institute for Advanced Study. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
^ a b "The D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum". University of Dundee. Retrieved 24 October 2011.
^ "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) (ms9013-29950; ms 37781; ms40500-50161)". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 24 October 2011.
^ "D'Arcy Thompson memorabilia". Archive Services Online Catalogue. University of Dundee. Retrieved 24 October 2011.


Thompson, D W., 1992. On Growth and Form. Dover reprint of 1942 2nd ed. (1st ed., 1917). ISBN 0-486-67135-6
--------, 1992. On Growth and Form. Cambridge Univ. Press. Abridged edition by John Tyler Bonner. ISBN 0521437768, ISBN 9780521437769.
Online in Google Books
Caudwell, C & Jarron, M, 2010. D'Arcy Thompson and his Zoology Museum in Dundee. University of Dundee Museum Services.
Sermonti, Giuseppe (2004). "Wagner and Darwin, Hanslick and D'Arcy: from the whirlpools of becoming to the mathematical beauty.". Riv. Biol. 97 (3): pp. 357–64. PMID 15754590

External links
D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

"On growth and form" (1917)
D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum
Using a computer to visualise change in biological organisms
Cosma Shalizi, "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948)."
D'Arcy Thompson 150th anniversary homepage
John Milnor, "Geometry of Growth and Form: Commentary on D'Arcy Thompson"

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