Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, James Bruce

THOMSON, JAMES BRUCE (1810–1873), pioneer of criminology, born in 1810 at Fenwick in Ayrshire, was son of James Thomson, by his wife Helen Bruce. The parents appear to have died while their two sons were youths, and the boys were left in destitute circumstances, but they were educated at the cost of a friend. James was sent to Glasgow University, and took his diploma as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1845. Thereupon he proceeded to practise in Tillicoultry. While there Thomson acted as factory surgeon, and his first contribution to medical literature was a paper on the beneficial effects of the oil used in the manufacture of wool on the health of the workers. This brought him some repute, and Sir John Kincaid, inspector of prisons, directed the attention of the general board of prisons to his abilities. In consequence he was appointed first resident surgeon to her Majesty's general prison in Perth in 1858.

Thomson was thus placed in medical charge of a large number of prisoners, and the experience so gained enabled him to communicate to the medical periodicals of the day a series of able and important papers on the problems suggested by crime and criminals. In 1872 his health broke down, and he suffered from gangrene of the leg for many months before his death on 19 Jan. 1873. He married Miss Agnes Laing about 1845, but the marriage proved unfortunate, and resulted in a separation. There were no children.

Thomson's published papers were chiefly contributed to the ‘Edinburgh Medical Journal’ and to the ‘Journal of Mental Science’ between 1860 and 1870. In the ordinary course of duty he prepared annual official returns to the general board of prisons, Scotland; and with Sir Robert Christison [q. v.] in 1865 a special report on the prison dietaries of Scotland, with details of the regulations then in force and suggestions as to the future. His papers in the ‘Journal of Mental Science’ present Thomson in the important light of the pioneer of criminology in this country. He was the first medical writer of Great Britain to investigate the mental and physical condition of criminals from the modern scientific point of view, and to attempt a scientific estimate of the relations of crime with mental and physical disease. He made researches into the history of criminal families, and found that heredity was the prime factor of criminality, and that environment determined the almost inevitable issue. Thomson outlined the physical appearances of criminals—what are now called the stigmata of degeneration. He showed that tubercular disease was the chief ailment of the criminal class, diseases of the nervous system taking the next place in order of frequency. The close connection between insanity and crime he illustrated by the conclusion that one in forty-seven of the criminal class was insane.

These decisive communications, based upon large experience and careful study, gave an impulse to the scientific investigation of the criminological branch of anthropology. That study had been wisely inaugurated in France by Morel and Despine, and has been followed out by the school of Lombroso in a manner provocative of destructive criticism. Thomson stated his opinion too briefly, and did not deal with the statistics at his command in sufficient detail; but he led the way for those who command modern instruments of precision and wider opportunities of research.

[Thomson's contributions to Journal of Mental Science and other periodicals.]

A. R. U.