Manuscript collections: Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth (1860-1948)

Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth (1860-1948)

Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was one of the last Victorian polymaths, possessing an aptitude not only for biology but also for classics, botany, mathematics and physics. He was appointed a professor at Dundee at the remarkably young age of 25. Whilst in Dundee he helped to found the Dundee Social Union and the Medical School, as well as the Zoological Museum which now bears his name. In 1917 he moved to St Andrews University to take up the post of Professor of Natural History, a post he retained until his death in 1948. Honours include Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1885); Fellowship of the Royal Society (1916); the Linnean gold medal (1938); the Darwin medal (1946); and a knighthood (1937). 

As scientific advisor to the Bering Sea Fur Seal Commission he made two expeditions to the Bering Straits in 1896-1897, becoming an early advocate of marine conservation in his recommendations to preserve seal, whale and sea otter populations. Thompson was also an important figure in European fisheries research, engaged in pioneering research into hydrography for the Fisheries Board of Scotland and the International Council for Exploration of the Sea. Most of the papers relating to fishing and whaling have been catalogued in our online catalogue

The extensive archive contains over 30,000 items, including research papers, annotated monographs and broad ranging correspondence, reflecting his wide ranging enthusiasms as well as his career. His voluminous correspondence with eminent scientists and other prominent figures offer a rich source for the study of the above areas as well as contemporary academia, history, social trends and technological developments.

Thompson was a brilliant interdisciplinary thinker. His published output was vast, and included papers on biomathematics, oceanography, classical scholarship, and natural history. His enduring legacy is On Growth and Form, still in print in multiple languages. This ground-breaking analysis of form and function in nature has had huge impact in numerous fields of research, including biology, medicine, mathematics, geography, architecture, anthropology, digital design and engineering, as well as influencing creative artists. His work is recognised by an international community of scientists. 

This year sees the centenary of the publication of On Growth and Form in 1917. The archive includes drafts, drawings, annotated copies and research for On Growth and Form, as well as many letters in which Thompson discusses and seeks information for the book and for the much larger second edition, published in 1945. Commemorative events are planned by both Dundee and St Andrews including a joint conference in October celebrating the diversity of its influence. See the On Growth and Form official website for news of other events, and there is more information on Thompson on the D'Arcy 150 website, set up to commemorate the 150th anniverary of his birth in 2010. 


A hard-copy (published) index to the correspondence is available. A pdf version of the index is available for download below. 

We are working on adding records to the online catalogue - see the collection level record here. There are over 6000 records now, although they are not easily browseable at the moment. Try searching for your search term and DWT* - that should bring up good results. 

Images of the collection

D'Arcy Thompson with his pet parrot

Card from Alfred Russell Wallace to D'Arcy Thompson, 1891,

Typed copy letter from D'Arcy Thompson to Alfred Russell Wallace, 1912,

Drawing by D'Arcy Thompson showing the splash of a drop of liquid, ms42735-38

Gonozooid drawings for On Growth and Form, ms42735-85

Examples of tetrakaidekahedral forms, for On Growth and Form, ms42735-46

Drawings of fish transformations, ms42735-36

Drawings of Mymaridae for On Growth and Form, ms42735-25

Shell from a glass plate negative, ms42735-1-6