Charles Wyville Thomson

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Charles Wyville Thomson

FMIB 36374 Sir Wyville Thomson (cropped).jpeg
Undated photograph of Thomson
Wyville Thomas Charles Thomson

(1830-03-05)5 March 1830
Linlithgow, Scotland [1]
Died10 March 1882(1882-03-10) (aged 52)
Linlithgow, Scotland
Alma mater
Known for Challenger expedition
Scientific career
FieldsMarine zoology
Bust of Thomson by John Hutchison Charles Wyville Thomson by John Hutchison.jpg
Bust of Thomson by John Hutchison

Sir Charles Wyville Thomson FRSE FRS FLS FGS FZS (5 March 1830 – 10 March 1882) was a Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist. He served as the chief scientist on the Challenger expedition; his work there revolutionized oceanography and led to his being knighted.



Thomson was born at Bonsyde, in Linlithgow, West Lothian, on 5 March 1830, the son of Andrew Thomson, a surgeon in the service of the East India Company, and his wife Sarah Ann Drummond Smith. He was baptised Wyville Thomas Charles Thomson, but changed his name formally upon being knighted in 1876. [3] [2]

He was educated under Charles Chalmers at Merchiston Castle School, then from 1845 studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh graduating with an MD. However, his focus turned from medicine to natural science, and he joined the Botanical Society of Edinburgh in 1847, and soon after became secretary to the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh. In 1850 he was attending the botany class of John Hutton Balfour at the University.

In 1850 he was appointed lecturer of botany, and in 1851 professor of botany, at the University of Aberdeen. In 1853 he became a professor of natural history in Queen's College, Cork, Ireland, succeeding Professor Hincks. A year later he was nominated to the chair of mineralogy and geology at the Queen's University of Belfast. [4]

In 1855 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, his proposer being his former tutor, John Hutton Balfour. He served as the society's vice president from 1877 to 1882. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1869. [3]

In 1860 was transferred to the chair of natural history at the same institution. In 1868 he assumed the duties of professor of botany at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, and finally in 1870 he received the natural history chair at the University of Edinburgh. [4] Here he taught Arthur Conan Doyle. [5]

In 1871–72 he served as President of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. [6]


Thomson is remembered for his studies of the biological conditions of the deep seas. Being interested in crinoids, and prompted by the results of the dredgings of Michael Sars in the deep sea off the Norwegian coasts, he persuaded the Royal Navy to grant him use of HMS Lightning and HMS Porcupine for deep sea dredging expeditions in the summers of 1868 and 1869. They showed that animal life existed down to depths of 650 fathoms (1200 m), that all marine invertebrate groups are present at this depth, and that deep-sea temperatures are not as constant as had been supposed, but vary considerably, and indicate oceanic circulation. These results were described in The Depths of the Sea, which he published in 1873. [4]

Challenger expedition

The remarkable hydrographic and zoological results which Thomson had demonstrated, in addition to the growing demands of ocean telegraphy, soon led to the Royal Navy to grant use of HMS Challenger for a global expedition. Wyville Thomson was selected as chief scientist, and the ship sailed on 23 December 1872. [7]


The Challenger expedition was deemed a great success, and on his return Thomson received a number of academic honours, as well as a knighthood. In 1877 he published in two volumes The Voyage of the Challenger The Atlantic, a preliminary account of the results of the voyage. He spent the next two years working on administrative duties connected with the publication of the full monograph of the voyage. Thomson had a highly strung mentality, and his health was generally poor throughout his life. He found dealing with publishers in the course of completing the full reports of the voyage to be enormously stressful. In 1879 he ceased to perform his university duties, gave up overseeing the reports of the expedition in 1881 (after publishing the introduction to the zoological series in 1880), [2] then took to his bed and died a broken man at Bonsyde on 10 March 1882. [4] Thomson's friend and colleague Sir John Murray took over the publication of the reports; they eventually spanned 50 volumes, the last of which was issued in 1895. [2]

Thomson's headstone in St. Michael's Parish Churchyard. St Michael's Kirkyard (1).JPG
Thomson's headstone in St. Michael's Parish Churchyard.

Thomson is commemorated in the stained glass window above the altar in St. Michael's Parish Church, Linlithgow and his headstone is in the churchyard. In addition the Wyville-Thomson Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean is named after him.


Thomson had criticised natural selection, stating it was not enough to explain the evolution of species. Replying in the Nature journal, Charles Darwin commented that "I am sorry to find that Sir Wyville Thomson does not under stand the principle of natural selection, as explained by Mr. Wallace and myself... Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection?" [8]



In 1853 he married Jane Ramage Dawson. They were parents to Frank Wyville Thomson FRSE (1860–1918).

Taxon named in his honor

The Pallid sculpin, Cottunculus thomsonii (Günther, 1882) is named after him. [9]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Sir C. Wyville Thomson". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2002. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Rice, A. L. (2004). "Thomson, Sir Charles Wyville (1830–1882)" . Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27295.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. 1 2 Waterston, C. D.; Macmillan Shearer, A. (July 2006). Biographical Index of the Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1783–2002 (PDF). Vol. II. The Royal Society of Edinburgh. p. 923 (in work p. 435). ISBN   978-0-90219-884-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 April 2012. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Thomson, Sir Charles Wyville". Encyclopædia Britannica . Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 871.
  5. Doyle, A. C. (1924). "Recollections of a Student". Memories and Adventures. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. p. 19. OCLC   1367896. They were remarkable men, however, some of these professors, and we managed to know them pretty well ... There was Wyville Thomson, the zoologist, fresh from his Challenger expedition, ...
  6. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 1836–1936 (PDF). 1936. p. 15. OCLC   27215230. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 March 2017. Retrieved 11 August 2018.
  7. Aitken, F.; Foulc, J.-N. (2019). The First Explorations of the Deep Sea by H.M.S. Challenger (1872–1876). From Deep Sea to Laboratory. Vol. 1. London: ISTE. doi:10.1002/9781119610953. ISBN   978-1-78630-374-5.
  8. Darwin, C. R. (November 1880). "Sir Wyville Thomson and Natural Selection". Letters to the Editor. Nature. 23 (576): 32. doi: 10.1038/023032c0 .
  9. Coad, B. W.; Reist, J. D., eds. (2018). Marine Fishes of Arctic Canada. University of Toronto Press. p. 442. ISBN   978-1-44264-710-7.

Further reading