Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Charles Wyville
THOMSON, Sir CHARLES WYVILLE (1830–1882), naturalist, son of Andrew Thomson, surgeon in the East India Company's service, was born at Bonsyde, Linlithgow, on 5 March 1830. His baptismal name was Wyville Thomas Charles, and the change was formally made when he was gazetted as knight. He was educated first at Merchiston Castle school, and then at the university of Edinburgh, attending the classes in medicine. His aptitude for natural science showed first in the direction of botany, and was so marked that in 1850 he was appointed lecturer on botany at King's College, Aberdeen, and in the following year professor in the same subject at Marischal College. But in 1853 his field of work was enlarged by his appointment to the chair of natural history in Queen's College, Cork, and by his removal in the following year to that of mineralogy and geology at Queen's College, Belfast, where, in 1860, he was transferred to the professorship of natural science. To this post in 1868 was added that of professor of botany to the Royal College of Science, Dublin. His last removal was in 1870 to the professorship of natural history in the university of Edinburgh.
Some years before he had turned his mind to questions relating to the distribution of life and the physical conditions in the deeper parts of the ocean, to which attention had already been directed by Dr. G. C. Wallich, who in 1860 accompanied the Bulldog in a sounding voyage across the North Atlantic. Dr. William Benjamin Carpenter [q. v.] was also keenly interested in similar questions, and ultimately the matter was taken up by the Royal Society, with the result that in the summer of 1868 the two naturalists, on board the gunboat Lightning, made a series of investigations to the north of Scotland as far as the Faroe Islands. The work was continued in the following year, with the aid of John Gwyn Jeffreys [q. v.], on board her majesty's ship Porcupine, off the west coast of Ireland, in the Bay of Biscay, and to the north of Scotland, and an expedition was made to the Mediterranean in 1870, which Thomson, owing to an illness, could not accompany. He described the general results of these researches in a volume published in 1873, and entitled ‘The Depths of the Sea.’
These cruises, however, were only preliminary to an investigation on a much more extended scale. They had proved so fruitful and suggestive that the government was strongly urged by the leading men of science in Great Britain to send out a roomy and well-equipped vessel, in order to make a series of soundings and dredgings in the three great ocean basins, to ascertain the temperature and character of the water, to collect specimens of the fauna and flora on the surface and from all possible depths, and to study as far as possible certain rarely visited oceanic islands—in fact, to make a somewhat devious voyage of circumnavigation, which was expressly guided by the desire to increase scientific knowledge. The Challenger, a corvette of 2,306 tons, was specially fitted up and placed under command of Captain (now Sir George) Nares, with a naval surveying staff. Thomson, who had been granted leave of absence by his university, was appointed chief of the civilian scientific staff (six in number), and the vessel left Sheerness on 7 Dec. 1872. They crossed the Atlantic from the Canary Isles to the West Indies, when after skirting its American side as far north as Halifax they recrossed to Madeira by the Azores. Then they sailed southward of the Cape de Verde Islands and St. Paul's Rocks to Fernando Noronha and the Brazil coast, crossing the southern Atlantic by way of Tristan da Cunha to the Cape of Good Hope. From this they made for the Antarctic Ocean by way of the Crozets and Kerguelen land, and reached the ice-pack a little south of the Antarctic circle, beyond which it was unsafe to venture in an ordinary vessel. Thence they proceeded to Australia, and after touching at Melbourne and Sydney, sailed for Fiji. A devious course took them through the Australasian islands, and they then visited Japan and the Sandwich Islands. After sailing due south to the tropic of Capricorn, they took an easterly course to Valparaiso, and made their way into the southern Atlantic through the Magellan Strait. After calling at Montevideo they visited the Canaries, and returned to England by a variation of their former route, arriving at Spithead on 24 May 1876, having travelled in this remarkable voyage 68,890 nautical miles, and having made observations by soundings at 362 stations. An enormous mass of material had been obtained for study, and Thomson (who received the honour of knighthood on his return) was appointed director of the Challenger expedition commission to superintend the arrangement of the collections and the publication of the results at the public expense. He also resumed his university duties, delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge in 1877, and in the following year presided over the geographical section at the meeting of the British Association in Dublin. But he had undertaken more than his constitution could bear. He was struck down by an illness in the summer of 1879, which prevented him from resuming his lectures, and he died at his house, Bonsyde, near Linlithgow, on 10 March 1882. He married, in 1853, Jane Ramage, eldest daughter of Adam Dawson, of Bonnytown, Linlithgowshire, who survived him. Their only son, Frank Wyville Thomson, became surgeon-captain in the 3rd Bengal cavalry.
Thomson received the following honorary degrees: LL.D. of Aberdeen, 1853, LL.D. 1860, and D.Sc. 1871, of the Queen's University, Ireland; LL.D. Dublin, 1878, and Ph.D. Jena. He was elected F.R.S.E. 1855, M.R.I.A. 1861, F.R.S. 1869, and was a fellow of the Linnean, Geological, Zoological, and other societies, besides receiving the honorary membership of various scientific bodies, colonial and foreign. He was awarded a royal medal in 1876, and in 1877 was created a knight of the Polar Star when a delegate from the university of Edinburgh to that of Upsala, on the occasion of their quater-centenary.
Thomson's more important papers, including official reports, are about forty-five in number. They deal with varied subjects, but the majority treat of echinids, crinoids, or other echinoderms, for he made this class his special study. Besides these he wrote two books, ‘The Depths of the Sea,’ already mentioned, and ‘The Voyage of the Challenger in the Atlantic,’ 2 vols. 1877. The latter gave a general account of the results of the exploration of the Atlantic. His illness prevented him from continuing the publication of the results of the expedition, and the heavy task was undertaken in the beginning of 1881 by Dr. John Murray, a member of the civilian staff. The series of volumes was completed in about thirteen years.
A marble bust of Wyville Thomson is in the university of Edinburgh, and a memorial window was erected to his memory in the cathedral of Linlithgow.[Proceedings of the Linnean Soc. 1881–2, p. 67; Transactions of the Edinburgh Botan. Soc. xiv. 278; Quarterly Journ. Geol. Soc. 1882, Proc. p. 40; Reports of Challenger, Zoology, vol. iv. (1882); information from Dr. John Murray.]