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John Arthur Thomson (1861–1933). Photograph, 1922. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

John Arthur Thomson

(1861 – 1933)

The Scottish naturalist John Arthur Thomson (1861-1933), born at Saltoun, East Lothian in 1861, was best known in his own time as a Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen. Having graduated with a Master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1880, before completing a divinity course at New College, Thomson’s initial desire was to become a clergyman. His father Arthur Thomson (1832-1881) was an ordained clergyman in the Free Church of Scotland and the author of several theological publications. Thomson’s maternal grandparents, David Landsborough (1779-1854) and Margaret McLeish (1797-1834), had been pioneering figures in the Free Church. Dr Landsborough had studied at the University of Edinburgh before going on to be ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1811 at Stevenston, Ayrshire. He was involved in the Disruption of 1843, a schism within the national church as ministers broke away in response to perceived interference from the British state in church affairs. Dr Landsborough had been one of the ministers to sign the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission (1843) and helped to build a church which opened in January 1844. In addition to his clerical duties, Dr Landsborough had also maintained an interest in naturalism, writing about the nearby Island of Arran. Seemingly prefiguring Thomson’s work for the little magazine The Evergreen (1895-1897), notable for its integration of artistic and scientific interests, Dr Landsborough included in his book-length essay Arran and the Excursions to Arran (1847) an extended poem on the island which he had written himself. A rather scathing review of this publication stated that the “gifted and amiable author of it should have published the poem separate” (A.W. 61), anticipating some reviews dismissive of The Evergreen’s particular combination of literature and science (e.g. the review of the latter by H. G. Wells). Indeed, Dr Landsborough’s own holistic approach to naturalism is not dissimilar from the philosophy that would later underlie much of his grandson’s work. According to his friend and fellow member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh James Ritchie (1882–1958), Arthur Thomson felt he had “a natural bent derived from two generations of naturalists on his mother’s side” (296).

Consequently, rather than entering the church, Thomson studied at Jena in 1883 under the naturalist Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919), who helped to popularise Darwinian theories in Germany. He then went on to study at a marine laboratory in France with the Lamarckian zoologist Yves Delage (1854–1920) in 1884, and with F. Eilhard Schultze (1840–1921)—also a specialist in sea life—in 1885 at the Zoological Institute in Berlin. Upon his return to Edinburgh in 1886, Thomson took up lecturing on zoology and botany; various obituaries written in his honour make it clear that he was a well-loved teacher. Ritchie immortalises this aspect of Thomson’s work in his obituary, writing that “no man of his time has done so much to interest the people in natural history” (296). At some point during his time in Edinburgh, Thomson married his wife, Margaret Stewart, and on 7th February 1887 he was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in which he would later serve as a Councillor on two occasions, firstly from 1906 to 1908, and secondly from 1920 to 1923. Notable amongst the proposers for his election to the Society in 1887 was Patrick Geddes. Geddes had been Thomson’s teacher at one point in Edinburgh (Macdonald 45) before the two became friends, and Thomson was intimately acquainted with the Geddes family (Mairet 80). Thomson and Geddes went on to collaborate on various publication projects, including Geddes’s The Evergreen magazine, as well as on scientific monographs on The Evolution of Sex (1889) and Life: Outlines of General Biology (1931).

Alongside his work with the Royal Society, John Arthur Thomson continued teaching and was at length appointed to the Regius Chair of Natural History at Aberdeen in 1899, a position in which he would remain until 1931, just two years before his death. Thomson and his wife Margaret had four children, three sons and one daughter. Some of these went on to make scientific contributions (Ritchie 296): Sir Arthur (1890–1977) was a recognised and respected authority on bird migration, and David (1901-1964) worked as a lecturer in biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal, with research centred on endocrinology.

Due to his longstanding commitment to teaching and public lecturing, it is of little surprise that at his death Thomson was primarily remembered for his academic career. In his youth, he had, however, been a prominent contributor to the avant-garde little magazine The Evergreen. Thomson contributed five essays, all on the subject of natural life in a specific season. The magazine itself had been conceived as a “Seasonal” periodical, each of its four issues devoted to a specific season, and Thomson’s contributions helped to develop key concepts for the publication (General Introduction to The Evergreen). He also co-authored with William Macdonald the programmatic “Proem” to the first issue, and one with Geddes on the topic of “The Moral Evolution of Sex,” which condenses some of the main ideas in their earlier jointly authored monograph.

In line with the magazine’s ethos of uniting science and the arts, each of Thomson’s “Seasonal” sketches provided an easily comprehensible overview of the respective season from both scientific and folkloric perspectives. This combination helped to further elucidate the complexity and richness of each season to readers, bringing the natural cycles to life in a way that science, due to its characteristic need for abstraction from lived experience, could not achieve by itself. One example of this unified approach can be found in Thomson’s discussion of Spring in the magazine’s first number through the narrative of Sleeping Beauty. Thomson uses the tale as an illustration of the reawakening of nature in spring, writing that “the Sleeping Beauty has been kissed awake again” (“Germinal, Floreal, Prairial,” 23) by the sunshine of spring. At the kiss of sunshine, Thomson continues, “all the buglers blew, both high and low, the cawing rooks on the trees, and the croaking frogs by the pond, each according to his strength and skill. All through the palace there was a re-awakening” (“Germinal, Floreal, Prairial,” 23).

Similarly, when describing the descent into autumn, Thomson first records seasonal changes in nature: “the petals of the last poppy are shed, the butterflies disappear with the sunbeams” (“The Biology of Autumn,” 11), and then marries this cataloguing of the season with a reference to classical mythology and the myth of Proserpina (“The Biology of Autumn,” 11). Using mythical and folkloric narratives in this way contextualises the seasons and their natural manifestations in a broader framework of a common past and shared stories. Thomson’s work with the magazine was therefore instrumental in both the development and consolidation of some of The Evergreen’s key concepts: the idea that life, much like the seasons, is rhythmic and cyclical, that the past has inherent wisdom, and that science and the arts should not be opposites.

Not all who read The Evergreen were impressed by these ideals, however. The aforementioned H.G. Wells (1866–1946), for example, deemed the endeavour “amazingly unscientific” (209), and described the project as “bio-optimism” (210), seeing it as naïve to hope for peaceful transition in the evolutionary process. One of Wells’s main criticisms of the magazine was that the concept of biologists espousing the wonder of the arts was as laughable as imagining “the New English Art Club propounding a Scientific Renascence in its leisure moments” (207). However, Wells’s insinuation that contributors like Thomson were scientifically incompetent was arguably as wrong as his allegation that he was a mere dilletante in art and poetry as well.

Indeed, the combination of literature and science which Thomson demonstrated in The Evergreen was an approach that he maintained in other areas of his career as well. One example of this can be seen in his contributions to Arthur Henry Mee’s (1875–1943) Children’s Encyclopaedia (1908-1910), where Thomson is listed as a contributor. Whilst individual chapters in the encyclopaedia are not attributed to a specific author, Thomson’s authorship of the entries on botanical subjects can be inferred from similarities in phrasing and quotations shared by his other publications. Certain passages bear striking resemblances in language usage to portions of his later Gifford lecture series at the University of St Andrews (1915–1916). For example, both the encyclopaedia (Thomson, “How Life Goes Round and Round,” 84) and the lecture (Thomson, The System of Animate Nature, 267-268) describe a royal fern beside a waterfall with reference to the same Wordsworth poem. By placing the poetic quotation into a scientific context, and thus using it to convey an affective response to the natural phenomenon under scrutiny, Thomson suggests that poetry and science exist on an equal level, with one aiding in the understanding of the other. In this way, his contributions to the encyclopaedia and his public lectures continued the work he had begun with The Evergreen, which had also advocated for this same symbiosis between art, literature and science, resulting in a holistic approach to humanity’s place in the world.

In Thomson’s Gifford lecture series, later published in a volume as The System of Animate Nature (1920), there are similar echoes of The Evergreen. In his first lecture, Thomson states that “to conserve the feeling for Nature – at once a satisfaction and a clue – we may get what aid we sincerely can from Nature-poetry and other idealisations” (The System of Animate Nature 30), clearly indicating a continued support for the combining of science and the arts. Far from being amateurish and overly idealising, Thomson’s lecture comes with the additional warning to “keep close to the concrete realities themselves” (The System of Animate Nature 30) and clarifies that “there is no question […] of admitting into our feeling for Nature any element that is incongruent with our intellectual experience” (The System of Animate Nature 32). This warning serves to contextualise his subsequent discussion of the relationship between poetry and science. “There is a deep wisdom,” writes Thomson, “in Wordsworth’s remark in one of his Prefaces [to the Lyrical Ballads]: – ‘poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science’” (The System of Animate Nature, 32). In citing these lines from Wordsworth, Thomson appears to suggest that poetry expresses the passion which drives the scientific endeavour, and therefore poetry is a perfectly appropriate vehicle for conveying the results of scientific investigation to the human imagination.

A similar sense of reflection on the past can also be detected in Thomson’s The Great Biologists (1932), which was published in the year before his death. In this historical overview of scientists and thinkers who have advanced the field of biology, Thomson significantly lists Goethe alongside celebrated biologists, honouring him as “one of the pioneers of Evolutionism” (The Great Biologists 59) and for his “many-sided genius – poet, philosopher, and scientific thinker” (The Great Biologists 65). Thomson’s decision to include Goethe in this collection of biologists at this later stage of his life is indicative of his enduring dedication to a symbiotic relationship between art and science. A further similarity between The Evergreen and the lecture series can be seen in the use of the past to illuminate the present. Just as The Evergreen had frequently referenced ancient history in its cyclical treatment of nature and the place of humanity therein, the idea of turning to the past in order to better understand one’s own time is also prominent throughout the lecture series. This is perhaps best articulated in Thomson’s claim that “the present becomes more intelligible in the light of the past” (The System of Animate Nature 20).

Thomson’s lifelong commitment to science and literature came to an end on 12th February 1933, when he died aged 71 as a result of what his obituaries record as an illness of the heart. His death came just two years after his retirement from the Chair of Natural History at Aberdeen, where he had taught for thirty-one years. Upon his retirement, Thomson was granted a knighthood in celebration of his work, a final honour which was bestowed upon him in 1930. He passed away in his own home at Limpsfield, Surrey, and was survived by his wife and children. Thomson was respected for his personal research on natural history and his gift for expounding the wonders of science to both his students and the wider public through his lectures and books, both academic and popular, written over the course of his life.

©2022, Georgia Comins is a PhD candidate at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge (UK). Her dissertation is on the political apostasy of the Lake Poets.

Selected Publications by J. Arthur Thomson

  • “The Biology of Autumn.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 2, Autumn 1895, pp. 9-17. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • “The Biology of Summer.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 3, Summer 1896, pp. 19-27. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • “The Biology of Winter.” The Evergreen; A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4, Winter 1896-7, pp. 8-17. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • “Germinal, Floreal, Prairial.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 1, Spring 1895, pp. 21-25. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • The Great Biologists. Methuen, 1932.
  • “How Life Goes Round and Round.” The Children’s Encyclopedia, vol. 1, edited by Arthur Mee. The Amalgamated Press, 1908, pp. 81-86.
  • Geddes, Patrick, and J. Arthur Thomson. “The Moral Evolution of Sex.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 3, Summer 1896, 73-85. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • Macdonald, W., and J. Arthur Thomson. “Proem.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 1, Spring 1895, pp. 9-15. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • The System of Animate Nature. Vol. 1. Henry Holt and Company, 1920.

Selected Publications about J. Arthur Thomson

  • Annals of the Free Church of Scotland (1843-1900). Vols. 1 and 2, edited by Rev. William Ewing, D.D. T. & T. Clark, 1914.
  • A.W. “New Books: Arran and Excursions to Arran, with reference to the Natural History of the Island. By the Rev. David Landsborough. 1847. Johnstone.” The Annals And Magazine of Natural History including Zoology, Botany and Geology, vol. 3, no. 2, 1849, p. 61. Biodiversity Library.
  • Elliott, Hugh. “Obituaries: Sir Arthur Landsborough Thomson (1890-1977).” Ibis vol. 120, no. 1, 1978, pp. 68-74.
  • J.R. “Sir J. Arthur Thomson, M.A. LL.D.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 53, 1934, pp. 379-380. Cambridge Core.
  • Landsborough, David. Arran, a poem in six cantos. William Blackwood; T. Cadell, 1828.
  • —. Arran and Excursions to Arran, with reference to the Natural History of the Island.: Johnstone, 1847.
  • Macdonald, Murdo. Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins. Edinburgh University Press, 2020.
  • Mairet, Philip. Pioneer of sociology: the life and letters of Patrick Geddes. Lund Humphries, 1957. Web. 2 Sept. 2022.
  • “Past presidents.” The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 2022.
  • Price, James H. “Landsborough [formerly McLandsborough], David (1779–1854).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004. Oxford DNB.
  • Ritchie, James. “Obituary: Sir J. Arthur Thomson.” Nature, vol. 21, no. 3, March 1933, p. 296.
  • The Royal Society of Edinburgh. Former Fellows of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1783-2002: Biographical Index Part Two. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 2006.
  • “Sir John Arthur Thomson. Scottish naturalist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Thomson, David Landsborough. David Landsborough Thomson Fonds. 1922-1963. CA MUA MG 2050. McGill University Archives, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
  • Wells, H.G. “Bio-optimism.” Review of The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal vol. 1, Spring 1895. Nature, vol. 29, August 1895, pp. 410-411. Yellow Nineties 2.0,

MLA citation:

Comins, Georgia. “John Arthur Thomson (1861 – 1933),” Y90s Biographies. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2023,