D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson CB
Order of the Bath
The Most Honourable Order of the Bath is a British order of chivalry founded by George I on 18 May 1725. The name derives from the elaborate mediæval ceremony for creating a knight, which involved bathing as one of its elements. The knights so created were known as Knights of the Bath...

 FRS FRSE (2 May 1860, Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

 – 21 June 1948, St Andrews
St Andrews
St Andrews is a university town and former royal burgh on the east coast of Fife in Scotland. The town is named after Saint Andrew the Apostle.St Andrews has a population of 16,680, making this the fifth largest settlement in Fife....

) was a Scottish
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

A biologist is a scientist devoted to and producing results in biology through the study of life. Typically biologists study organisms and their relationship to their environment. Biologists involved in basic research attempt to discover underlying mechanisms that govern how organisms work...

, mathematician
A mathematician is a person whose primary area of study is the field of mathematics. Mathematicians are concerned with quantity, structure, space, and change....

, and classics scholar
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

. A pioneering mathematical biologist
Mathematical biology
Mathematical and theoretical biology is an interdisciplinary scientific research field with a range of applications in biology, medicine and biotechnology...

, he is mainly remembered as the author of the 1917 book On Growth and Form, written largely in Dundee in 1915. Peter Medawar
Peter Medawar
Sir Peter Brian Medawar OM CBE FRS was a British biologist, whose work on graft rejection and the discovery of acquired immune tolerance was fundamental to the practice of tissue and organ transplants...

, 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".


D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson was the son of D'Arcy Thompson (1829–1902), Professor of Greek at Queen's College, Galway. (The latter was perhaps named for D'Arcy Wentworth
D'Arcy Wentworth
D'Arcy Wentworth was born in Portadown, County Armagh, Ireland and emigrated to Australia as an assistant surgeon to then-new colony of Sydney.- Emigration to Australia :...

 (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
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

 to study medicine. Two years later, he shifted his studies to Trinity College
Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Trinity has more members than any other college in Cambridge or Oxford, with around 700 undergraduates, 430 graduates, and over 170 Fellows...

 in the University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

, obtaining the BA in Natural Science in 1883. In 1884, he was appointed Professor of Biology (later Natural History) at University College, Dundee
University of Dundee
The University of Dundee is a university based in the city and Royal burgh of Dundee on eastern coast of the central Lowlands of Scotland and with a small number of institutions elsewhere....

, 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
Japanese spider crab
The , Macrocheira kaempferi, is a species of marine crab that lives in the waters around Japan. It has the largest leg span of any arthropod, reaching up to and weighing up to . It is the subject of small-scale fishery.-Description:...

 (still in the museum today) and the rare skeleton of a Steller's Sea Cow
Steller's Sea Cow
Steller's sea cow was a large herbivorous marine mammal. In historical times, it was the largest member of the order Sirenia, which includes its closest living relative, the dugong , and the manatees...


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
Country Life (magazine)
Country Life is a British weekly magazine, based in London at 110 Southwark Street, and owned by IPC Media, a Time Warner subsidiary.- Topics :The magazine covers the pleasures and joys of rural life, as well as the concerns of rural people...

 magazine in October 1923. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

 in 1916, he was knighted in 1937 and was awarded the Darwin Medal
Darwin Medal
The Darwin Medal is awarded by the Royal Society every alternate year for "work of acknowledged distinction in the broad area of biology in which Charles Darwin worked, notably in evolution, population biology, organismal biology and biological diversity". First awarded in 1890, it was created in...

 in 1946. For his revised On Growth and Form Thompson was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal
Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal
The Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal is awarded by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences "for meritorious work in zoology or paleontology published in a three- to five-year period." Named after Daniel Giraud Elliot, it was first awarded in 1917....

 from the National Academy of Sciences
United States National Academy of Sciences
The National Academy of Sciences is a corporation in the United States whose members serve pro bono as "advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine." As a national academy, new members of the organization are elected annually by current members, based on their distinguished and...

 in 1942.

On Growth and Form

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
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 as the fundamental determinant of the form and structure of living organisms, and underemphasized the roles of physical laws
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 and mechanics
Classical mechanics
In physics, classical mechanics is one of the two major sub-fields of mechanics, which is concerned with the set of physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the action of a system of forces...

. He advocated structuralism
Structuralism (biology)
Biological or process structuralism is a school of biological thought that deals with the law-like behaviour of the structure of organisms and how it can change....

 as an alternative to survival of the fittest
Survival of the fittest
"Survival of the fittest" is a phrase originating in evolutionary theory, as an alternative description of Natural selection. The phrase is today commonly used in contexts that are incompatible with the original meaning as intended by its first two proponents: British polymath philosopher Herbert...

 in governing the form of species.

On the concept of allometry, Thompson wrote:

Thompson pointed out example after example of correlations between biological forms and mechanical phenomena. He showed the similarity in the forms of jellyfish
Jellyfish are free-swimming members of the phylum Cnidaria. Medusa is another word for jellyfish, and refers to any free-swimming jellyfish stages in the phylum Cnidaria...

 and the forms of drops of liquid falling into viscous
Viscosity is a measure of the resistance of a fluid which is being deformed by either shear or tensile stress. In everyday terms , viscosity is "thickness" or "internal friction". Thus, water is "thin", having a lower viscosity, while honey is "thick", having a higher viscosity...

 fluid, and between the internal supporting structures in the hollow bones of birds and well-known engineering truss
In architecture and structural engineering, a truss is a structure comprising one or more triangular units constructed with straight members whose ends are connected at joints referred to as nodes. External forces and reactions to those forces are considered to act only at the nodes and result in...

 designs. His observations of phyllotaxis
In botany, phyllotaxis or phyllotaxy is the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem .- Pattern structure :...

 (numerical relationships between spiral structures in plants) and the Fibonacci sequence
Fibonacci number
In mathematics, the Fibonacci numbers are the numbers in the following integer sequence:0,\;1,\;1,\;2,\;3,\;5,\;8,\;13,\;21,\;34,\;55,\;89,\;144,\; \ldots\; ....

 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
Transformation (mathematics)
In mathematics, a transformation could be any function mapping a set X on to another set or on to itself. However, often the set X has some additional algebraic or geometric structure and the term "transformation" refers to a function from X to itself that preserves this structure.Examples include...


Utterly sui generis
Sui generis
Sui generis is a Latin expression, literally meaning of its own kind/genus or unique in its characteristics. The expression is often used in analytic philosophy to indicate an idea, an entity, or a reality which cannot be included in a wider concept....

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
University of Dundee
The University of Dundee is a university based in the city and Royal burgh of Dundee on eastern coast of the central Lowlands of Scotland and with a small number of institutions elsewhere....

 and the University of St Andrews
University of St Andrews
The University of St Andrews, informally referred to as "St Andrews", is the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. The university is situated in the town of St Andrews, Fife, on the east coast of Scotland. It was founded between...

. 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
Sensation Science Centre
Sensation is a science centre located in Dundee, Scotland, and is part of the Scottish Science Centres Network.The centre is a registered non-profit organization that is funded by the public and donations from local corporate sponsors....


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
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

. However some important teaching materials were retained. The items which were kept now form the core of the University of Dundee
University of Dundee
The University of Dundee is a university based in the city and Royal burgh of Dundee on eastern coast of the central Lowlands of Scotland and with a small number of institutions elsewhere....

'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 Firday afternoons in the summer, or by appointment.

Special Collections at the University of St Andrews
University of St Andrews
The University of St Andrews, informally referred to as "St Andrews", is the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. The university is situated in the town of St Andrews, Fife, on the east coast of Scotland. It was founded between...

 hold D'Arcy Thompson's personal papers which include over 30,000 items.
Archive Services at the University of Dundee
University of Dundee
The University of Dundee is a university based in the city and Royal burgh of Dundee on eastern coast of the central Lowlands of Scotland and with a small number of institutions elsewhere....

 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.

See also

  • Biophysics
    Biophysics is an interdisciplinary science that uses the methods of physical science to study biological systems. Studies included under the branches of biophysics span all levels of biological organization, from the molecular scale to whole organisms and ecosystems...

  • Biostatistics
    Biostatistics is the application of statistics to a wide range of topics in biology...

  • Evolutionary developmental biology
    Evolutionary developmental biology
    Evolutionary developmental biology is a field of biology that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to determine the ancestral relationship between them, and to discover how developmental processes evolved...

  • Morphogenesis
    Morphogenesis , is the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape...


  • 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
    John Tyler Bonner
    John Tyler Bonner is an emeritus professor, now lecturer with the rank of professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. He is a pioneer in the use of cellular slime molds to understand evolution and development over a career of 40 years and is one of...

    . ISBN 0521437768, ISBN 9780521437769.
  • Caudwell, C & Jarron, M, 2010. D'Arcy Thompson and his Zoology Museum in Dundee. University of Dundee Museum Services.


External links

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