Papers of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

Scope and Content

The papers include not only items relating to marine ecology and fauna; natural history; anthropology and personal subjects and to Thompson's career but also contain a major body of correspondence extending to over 30,000 letters. These letters offer not only information on D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson himself but also what are very often extremely candid and sometimes humorous views of contemporary events and individuals. The collection also offers significant career and family photographic holdings covering nearly 90 years of Scottish life.

Administrative / Biographical History

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) was born in Edinburgh, the son of a Classical scholar, his father D'Arcy Thompson the Elder becoming professor of Greek at Queen's College, Galway from 1865. Educated by his father and at the Edinburgh Academy, Thompson studied at Edinburgh University from 1878-1880 before transferring to Cambridge, graduating in the Sciences in 1883. While at Cambridge, he translated Muller's On the fertilisation of flowers into English. The volume, which included a preface by Darwin, was published in 1883. In 1884 he was appointed Professor of Biology at University College, Dundee. He remained at Dundee until 1917 when he became Professor of Natural History at the University of St. Andrews, a post he held until his death in St Andrews in 1948.

In 1896-1897, D'Arcy Thompson acted as Scientific Advisor to the British Delegation of the Behring Sea Fur Seal Commission. In this period, he made 2 expeditions to the Behring Sea. Both expeditions visited the Pribiloff Islands. This Commission was set-up to investigate disputes between Great Britain and the United States over the fur seal industry. Thompson is credited with brokering the deal which brought the dispute to an end at the Washington Conference of late 1897. In 1898 he was awarded the CB for his part in the Commission.

From around 1900, Thompson was an important figure in European fisheries research, carrying out pioneering research in hydrography under the Fisheries Board for Scotland and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

In 1937, Thompson was knighted in the Coronation Honours list. He married in 1901 and fathered 3 daughters, one of whom, Ruth D'Arcy Thompson, would become his biographer.

Thompson has been styled the last of the great Victorian polymaths. In addition to his scientific acumen, he was also an eminent classicist, mathematician, bibliophile and a noted author on the history of science. He was also a highly sought-after public lecturer on a wide range of subjects, making lecture tours of Belgium in 1919, the North Eastern United States in 1936 and a Hellenic Travel Club cruise to Greece in 1939. He also made a number of early BBC educational radio broadcasts in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Thompson published broadly during his lengthy career. In addition his translation of Muller mentioned above and numerous articles and pamphlets his most important works include: On Growth and Form(1917; 2nd edition 1942), regarded by many as the foundation stone of modern biophysics, a benchmark translation of Aristotle's Historia Animalium (1910) and glossaries of both Greek Birds (1896)and Fishes (1944), based on the classics, these were regarded as classics in their time.


Order of accession.

Access Information

By appointment with the Archivist. Access to unpublished records less than 30 years old and other records containing confidential information may be restricted.


ms9013-29950 represents the original deposit. ms37781 contains correspondence between Thompson and Dr James Burt, 1922-47 which was deposited by Dr Burt in 1984. ms40500-50167 contains later deposits with ongoing deposits of addenda being placed in ms50167. The collection includes a dictionary translating Egyptian hieroglyphs into german.

Description compiled by Rachel Hart, Archives Hub Project Archivist, based on notes provided by Meic Pierce Owen, HOST Project Archivist.

Other Finding Aids

The collection has been the subject of a Research Support Libraries Programme grant and formed part of the History of Science and Technology project. Parts of the collection are now listed and available on the departmental manuscripts database. A handlist to the correspondence (1987) is being superseded by the manuscripts database.

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University Archivist. Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents.

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 227 procedures.

Custodial History

The bulk of the papers were bequeathed to the University of St Andrews by Thompson. Additional subsequent deposits have been and are being gifted to the University of St Andrews by his daughters.




D.W. Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917; 2nd edition Cambridge, 1942); Glossary of Greek Birds (London, 1896); Glossary of Greek Fishes (London, 1944); Aristotle's Historia Animalium (translated by Thompson, 1910) H. Muller, Befruchtung der Blumen durch Inseketen (The fertilisation of flowers) (translated and edited by D.W. Thompson ; with a preface by Charles Darwin) (London, 1883).

Additional Information

This material is original.