Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, David

THOMSON, DAVID (1817–1880), professor of natural philosophy at Aberdeen, eldest son of David Thomson, merchant of Leghorn, was born at Leghorn on 17 Nov. 1817. Receiving his school education in Italy and Switzerland, he entered the university of Glasgow in 1832 and Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1836, graduating B.A. in 1839 and M.A. in 1845. His mathematical powers were freely recognised, but the state of his health barred his chance of distinction.

In 1840 he became professor-substitute (for William Meikleham) of natural philosophy in the university of Glasgow, and that position he held until, in 1845, he was appointed professor of natural philosophy and one of the regents in the university and King's College, Aberdeen. He was sub-principal of King's College from 1854 to 1860, in which year, on the union of King's and Marischal colleges, he became professor of natural philosophy in the reconstituted university of Aberdeen. He died in office on 31 Jan. 1880, leaving a widow, a son, and three daughters.

‘Davie’ Thomson was known to two generations of Aberdeen students as an ideal teacher, and his name is inseparably connected with the high reputation which the university at one time possessed for mathematical scholarship. His lectures, while strictly scientific in method, were lightened by the free play of his keen and delicate humour. While still young he showed qualifications in the conduct of business which a little later rendered him the directing pilot in the somewhat troublous period of transition when the Aberdeen colleges had to be remodelled under the pressure of the demand for university extension and reform. His views, in spite of much local opposition, were in every particular adopted when the union of the colleges was finally carried out by act of parliament in 1860.

Thomson's only contribution to the literature of the subject of his chair is the article ‘Acoustics’ in the ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ In 1852 he edited the second edition of ‘Caledonia Romana,’ by Robert Stuart, his brother-in-law.

The university of Aberdeen possesses a bust of Thomson by John Hutcheson, R.S.A., subscribed for by old students.

[Records of Aberdeen Arts Class, 1868–72, 2nd ed. 1892; Low's David Thomson, a sketch, 1894; Davie Thomson, in Aberdeen Evening Gazette, 30 April 1894; Scotsman, 2 Feb. 1880; personal knowledge.]

P. J. A.