D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) was one of the most famous scientific personalities of his time – and that time was extensive, for he occupied important University chairs for a total of 64 years. He was greatly admired by many scientists, but his direct influence is hard to trace. In part, this is because some of his ideas have been accepted so entirely that they seem self-evident. Equally, it is because some of his ideas are not yet fully accepted.
D’Arcy took up the first Chair of Biology at what was then University College Dundee in 1885. He quickly acquired a reputation as an inspirational (and increasingly eccentric) teacher, while also playing an active role in local organisations such as the Dundee Social Union, the Dundee Naturalists Society and the Dundee Working Men’s Field Club. During his 32 years in Dundee he founded and developed a large and impressive Zoology Museum, collecting specimens from all over the world. Although the building was demolished in the 1950s, a new version of the museum was opened in 2008, featuring many of his original specimens.
On Growth and Form
D’Arcy’s collection provided the bedrock for his ongoing research into the mathematical principles of nature, work which would culminate in 1917 in the publication of his landmark book On Growth and Form. It pioneered the science of bio-mathematics and has been hailed as “the greatest work of prose in 20th-century science.” As well as continuing to inspire biologists and mathematicians today, it also proved hugely influential to such celebrated artists as Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton and Salvador Dali. The book was, however, just one of around 300 works published during his career.
In 1917 D’Arcy also moved to St Andrews to take up the Chair of Natural History at the University. While at St. Andrews, D’Arcy built up the existing Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History and added to its displays. One former visitor recalls meeting D’Arcy there when he was 8, in 1932. The Professor showed the young man round its exhibits and afterwards gave him a jar of stick insects, pointing out that these should be fed on fresh privet leaves.
Knighted in 1937, D’Arcy was a polymath, who might just as easily have occupy chairs of Mathematics, Physics or Classics. His mathematical abilities are well to the fore in On Growth and Form, while his fluency in Greek and Latin are to be seen in his translations of Aristotle and his Glossary of Greek Birds and Glossary of Greek Fishes. He worked in other languages too. In the last year of his life he was teaching a group of St Andrews students the history of Natural History. He was reading from a book rather hesitantly, and a student asked if he was too tired to continue. He said: “My dear child, I am not tired. I happen to be reading you a piece of medieval Italian, and I find the translation a little difficult!”
D’Arcy Thompson died in 1948, still teaching up to the age of 87, but before the advent of the computer era. He would have undoubtedly delighted in the abilities of computers, which could have empowered him to make his vision – still not generally accepted in its entirety – into an overwhelming case. With the development of new computer modelling techniques and the subsequent growth in mathematical biology as a specialist area of research, D’Arcy’s time has perhaps come at last. As one biologist has stated, “D’Arcy Thompson simply will be the most important person in the future of biology.”