Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Allen
THOMSON, ALLEN (1809–1884), biologist, only son of John Thomson (1765–1846) [q. v.] by his second wife, Margaret, daughter of John Millar (1735–1801) [q. v.], was born in Edinburgh on 2 April 1809, and was named after his father's friend, John Allen (1771–1843), secretary and confidential friend of Lord Holland. William Thomson (1802–1852) [q. v.] was his half-brother. Allen Thomson was educated at the high school and university of Edinburgh, and afterwards at Paris. He graduated doctor of medicine at the university of Edinburgh in August 1830. At the time of his graduation he was president of the Royal Medical Society in Edinburgh. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1831, and he then proceeded to Holland and Germany, visiting the anatomical and pathological museums, and taking elaborate notes of all that he saw. On his return to Edinburgh he began to lecture at 9 Surgeon's Square as an extra-academical teacher of physiology in association with William Sharpey [q. v.], who lectured on anatomy. These lectures were given from 1831 to 1836, and during the latter part of the time Thomson assisted also in teaching anatomy. In 1833 he travelled with his father for nearly three months, visiting the principal medical schools in Holland, Germany, Italy, and France, and meeting most of the noted scientific men of the time. From 1837 to 1839, at the instance of Lord Holland, he became private physician to the Duke of Bedford, then an invalid.
He was appointed professor of anatomy in the Marischal College, Aberdeen, in October 1839; but upon the collapse of the joint school in the university in 1841 he resigned his chair, and again became an extramural teacher at 1 Surgeon's Square, Edinburgh. In the summer of 1842 he delivered a special course of lectures upon microscopic anatomy, a subject which was then new. In these lectures he supplemented the views of German observers with the results of his own investigations, and the course became justly celebrated. In 1841 William Pulteney Alison [q. v.] resigned the chair of physiology in Edinburgh, and in 1842 Dr. Thomson was elected his successor. He occupied this chair for six years, making several important contributions to the science of embryology; but, his affection for anatomy remaining undiminished, he was appointed professor of anatomy in the university of Glasgow in 1848, in succession to Dr. James Jeffray. This chair he held with great distinction until 1877, when he resigned it and came to reside in London.
During his distinguished career Thomson received many scientific honours. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1838, and of the Royal Society of London in 1848. He became a councillor of the Royal Society of London in 1877, and one of the vice-presidents in 1878. He was president of the Philosophical Society, of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, and of the Science Lectures Association in Glasgow, and in this city he was also the first president of the local branch of the British Medical Association. From 1859 to 1877 he represented the universities of Glasgow and of St. Andrews jointly in the General Medical Council, where his ripe experience and calm judgment enabled him to do good service to the cause of medical education. He was president of the biological section of the British Association at the Edinburgh meeting in 1871, and in 1876 was elected president of the association. In his presidential address in the following year he reviewed the history of the Darwinian theory of evolution. In 1871 the university of Edinburgh conferred upon him the degree of LL.D., the university of Glasgow paid him a similar compliment in 1877, and he received the degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford in 1882.
While thus pursuing a scientific career, Allen Thomson was well known as one of the most active and influential citizens of Glasgow. He acted as chairman of the removal and buildings committee of the university of Glasgow from 1863 to 1874, and it was chiefly due to his tact and energy that the university buildings on Gilmorehill were successfully completed and occupied. He also took an active part in the erection of the Western Infirmary.
He died in London on 21 March 1884, at 66 Palace Gardens Terrace, leaving a widow, Ninian Jane, the daughter of Ninian Hill, writer to the signet, Edinburgh. By her he had an only son, John Millar Thomson, professor of chemistry at King's College, London.
Allen Thomson was the first of the great biological teachers of the nineteenth century, in contrast with earlier natural historians. Only less great than Huxley, he differed from him in lack of polemical spirit. He was endowed with a keen critical faculty as well as with an innate love of truth for its own sake. His writings are characterised more by fulness of knowledge, clearness of statement, and soundness of judgment than by originality. Excess of caution in coming to a conclusion was so marked a feature in him that his name is not associated with any broad generalisation in science. He published no independent work, but his writings in scientific periodicals are numerous, and are models of clearness of statement and skilful marshalling of facts. He was one of the main exponents of embryology in this country at a time when the science was in its infancy; and his papers show abundant evidence of personal investigation and critical inquiry. In all his researches his mind inclined more to the anatomical than to the physiological side of biology. He traced chiefly the development of organs, more especially of the circulation and of the genito-urinary systems. He was an able draughtsman, and his diagrams are still to be met with in nearly every textbook of anatomy and physiology. He wrote on physiological optics, more especially on the mechanism by which the eye accommodates or focusses itself for objects at different distances.
Thomson took part in editing the seventh, eighth, and ninth editions of Quain's ‘Elements of Anatomy.’ He was associated in the seventh edition with Professor Sharpey and Professor Cleland, in the eighth with Professor Sharpey and Professor Schäfer, and in the ninth edition with Professor Schäfer and Professor Thane. He also edited the second volume of Cullen's ‘Life,’ and to the reissue of the first volume he prefixed a biographical notice of his half-brother.
On his retirement in 1877 Thomson's portrait, painted by Sir Daniel Macnee, was presented to the university of Glasgow, and now hangs in the Hunterian Museum. It does scanty justice to the animated expression of his features.[Professor MacKendrick's obituary notice in the Proc. of the Phil. Soc. of Glasgow, vol. xv. 1883–4; the obituary notice in the Proc. of the Royal Soc. 1887, vol. xlii. p. xii; private information.]