Page 1

TOWN & GOWN Dr Martin Milner, Hon Curator, Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History, looks at the life of

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson – a famous St Andrean This year we celebrate the life of a remarkable man. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was born in 1860, appointed Professor of Biology in Dundee in 1884, moving to the chair of Natural History at St Andrews in 1917, the year his most important book, On Growth and Form, was published. Here he worked, taught, and walked the streets (sometimes with a parrot on his shoulder) until he died in 1948. D’Arcy was a polymath of a sort that one simply never encounters today. Equally qualified to occupy chairs in Zoology, Mathematics, and Classics, his writings encompassed all these fields, as exemplified by his Glossary of Greek Birds (1895) and Glossary of Greek Fishes (1947). However, the work for which he is best remembered and honoured is Growth and Form, first published in 1917, with a second edition in 1942, and an abridged edition edited by John Tyler Bonner in 1961. It has been translated into many languages and is still in print. In this elegantly-written book, he advanced his main thesis: that biological form can reflect physical and mathematical principles. One demonstration of his ideas lies in the morphology of shells and horns. These are the permanent, non-living, three-dimensional record of a temporary, two-dimensional living state – the base of the horn, or the mantle of the shellfish. D’Arcy Thompson showed that all horn and shell morphologies could be described in simple mathematical terms readily derived from the incremental nature of growth. hailed by the Professor, who showed him round the exhibits and on Perhaps the most famous images from On Growth and Form are parting gave him a jar of stick insects, with instructions to feed them on the transformations. D’Arcy showed that gross variation in form between fresh privet leaves. related species could be modeled by the consistent deformation of a The winter before he died D’Arcy was teaching the history of Natural sheet, and that if the sheet were stretched in one particular pattern, then History to a group of students at his home. One day as he read aloud he a new species form would be generated. His work still has relevance seemed to be hesitating, and one of the girls, fearing that he was less for mathematical biology, evolutionary biology, well, said, “Are you tired Professor, should we go developmental biology, and for the interface between now?” D’Arcy replied, “My dear child, I am not tired. D’Arcy was a polymath science and the arts. He focused on the boundaries happen to be reading you a piece of medieval of a sort that one simply IItalian, between disciplines in a remarkably modern manner. and I find the translation a little difficult”. He was a great character, whose memory was Truly, he was a remarkable man. never encounters today cherished by students and townsfolk alike. He loved The Universities of St Andrews and Dundee wine, women, and song – “I must dance just once more before I die”, both claim and honour D’Arcy as one of the most influential scholars was a favourite saying of his. An honours student was once summoned of the 20th century, and year-long celebrations are underway on both over poor work. She had been to a party the night before, and was sides of the Tay to celebrate his 150th birthday. In St Andrews there surprised to be greeted with, “was it a good dance?” She replied that will be a half day conference in which D’Arcy’s continuing relevance it was. Then, “is it to biology, mathematics, classics, and art will be discussed, followed a good floor?” and by a buffet supper in D’Arcy’s Museum, the Bell Pettigrew Museum of lastly, “got a boy of Natural History. D’Arcy’s successor but one, Professor Peter Slater, your own?” He loved will give an appreciation of D’Arcy the man. This event will start at children and always 2.00pm on Friday, 3rd September in Lecture Theatre C, Bute Buildings, had time for them. University of St Andrews. There is no charge and all are welcome. The A correspondent Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History will be open in July, August, recalled visiting and the first half of September on Tuesdays and Fridays, 2.00-5.00pm. the Bell Pettigrew Please visit our D’Arcy website, which has full details of all events at: Museum of Natural History (which D’Arcy (Images courtesy of ran) in 1932 when University of St Andrews Library a boy of 8. He was Special Collections)



D’Arcy was a polymath of a sort that one simply never encounters today TOWN & GOWN Dr Martin Milner, Hon Curator, Bell Pettigrew Museum...