Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Robert Dundas
THOMSON, ROBERT DUNDAS (1810–1864), medical officer of health and author, son of James Thomson (1768–1855) [q. v.], minister of Eccles, Berwickshire, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of James Skene of Aberdeen, was born at Eccles Manse on 21 Sept. 1810. He was educated for the medical profession in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Glasgow he studied chemistry under his uncle, Thomas Thomson (1773–1852) [q. v.], then professor there, and in 1840 he was at Giessen under Liebig. He graduated M.D. and C.M. at Glasgow University in 1831, became a member of the College of Physicians, London, in 1859, and was elected a fellow the year of his death. After making a voyage to India and China as assistant surgeon in the service of the East India Company, he settled as a physician in London about 1835, and took an active part in the establishment of the Blenheim Street school of medicine.
At an early period of his career he applied his chemical knowledge to the investigation of a variety of physiological questions—the composition of the blood, especially in cholera, among others—and he soon made himself a reputation as a correct and philosophical observer. He was employed by government to make a series of experiments on the food of cattle, and to analyse the water supplied by the different London companies. His researches on the constituents of food in relation to the systems of animals have long been a standard source of reference for physiologists pursuing similar inquiries, and have served as a basis for much of the progress of modern dietetical science.
In 1841 he went to Glasgow as deputy professor and assistant to his uncle, the professor of chemistry, whose failing health necessitated assistance. Thomson's lectures were heavy and hesitating, his experiments slow, and his matter too profound for the student. He was unsuccessful as a candidate for the chair at his uncle's death in 1852, but, returning to London, was appointed lecturer on chemistry at St. Thomas's Hospital on the retirement of Dr. Leeson. This post he held for some years. In 1856, when medical officers of health were appointed under the Metropolitan Local Management Act, he was the successful candidate for Marylebone. He devoted himself with great zeal and industry to the organisation of a system of inspection in that extensive parish, and when his colleagues formed themselves into an association of health officers (Metropolitan Association of Medical Officers of Health), they appointed him their president. The interests of this association he constantly promoted. He became widely known as an authority on sanitary matters, and was employed by the registrar-general to make a monthly report of the amount of impurity in the waters of the different London companies.
Thomson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 1 June 1854. He resided in London at 41 York Terrace, Regent's Park, and died at his brother's residence, Dunstable House, Richmond, on 17 Aug. 1864. At the time of his death he was president of the British Meteorological Society. He married his first cousin, a daughter of Thomas Thomson (1773–1852) [q. v.]
He contributed numerous papers to the British and foreign medical and scientific journals. The following is a list of his chief independent publications:
- ‘Records of General Science,’ 1835, 8vo.
- ‘British Annual and Epitome of the Progress of Science,’ 1837, 12mo.
- ‘Digestion: the influence of Alcoholic Fluids on that Function, and on the Value of Health and Life,’ London, 1841, 8vo.
- ‘Experimental Researches on the Food of Animals and the Fattening of Cattle, with Remarks on the Food of Man,’ 1846, 8vo; American editions, 1846 and 1856.
- ‘School Chemistry, or Practical Rudiments of the Science,’ 1848, 16mo; 2nd ed. 1862, 8vo.
- ‘Cyclopædia of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Physiology,’ 1854, 8vo.
- ‘Report to Government on the Waters, &c., of London during Cholera,’ 1854.
- ‘The British Empire,’ 1856, 8vo.
- ‘Annual Report on the Health of the Parish of St. Marylebone,’ 1857, 8vo.
[Lancet, 1864; Churchill's Med. Direct.; British Med. Journ. 1864; Medical Times and Gazette, 1864; Gent. Mag. 1864, ii. 523; Cat. Brit. Mus. Library; Records of the Royal Society and Catalogue of Scientific Papers.]