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John Arthur Thomson

Regius Professor of Natural History, University of Aberdeen
1861 to 1933

John Arthur Thomson was born 1861 in Salton near Edinburgh, Scotland, and although he remained in the area most of his life, his scientific interests ranged widely, spatially and temporally. He was foremost a Scottish naturalist, with an interest in its animals, plants, chemistry and geology. With Scotland having one of Europe’s finest marine habitats with rocky reefs covered in soft corals, perhaps it is understandable that Thomson became an expert in Alcyonacea, stinging anemones and jellyfish, commonly called soft corals.

In 1899, he became the regius professor of natural history at the University of Aberdeen. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1930. He was also a lecturer on zoology and biology in the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. In 1915 and 1916, he delivered a series of Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews which a reviewer said was ‘less a philosophy of biology than a general philosophy from the point of view of the biologist’. Rather than seeing evolution as a series of accidents, Thomson used his lectures to explain how religion and science meet. Throughout his work, Thomson reacted strongly to mechanistic and purely materialistic views of nature by striving to reconcile science and religion.

The bestseller he edited, Outline of Science, continued in the same vein. Published in 1922, it was written for a general audience. As he once wrote, while the ‘chief end of science is to make things clear, the educative aim is to foster the inquisitive spirit.’ That religion had nothing to fear from science, and vice versa, J. Arthur Thomson argued time and again in his writings and lectures.

In 1924, he travelled to the United States, where he lectured at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and at Yale. In 1930, Thomson was knighted.

In Surrey, England, where he retired, he wrote: ‘All nature bristles with the marks of interrogation. It is one of the joys of life to discover those marks of interrogation, these unsolved and half-solved problems and try to answer their questions.’ The words truly capture Sir John Arthur Thomson’s attitude towards life and his profession. They were published in Riddles of Science in 1931, two years before his death.

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow