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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/Sketch of Sir C. Wyville Thomson

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 22‎ | March 1883

 
PSM V22 D594 Charles Wyville Thompson.jpg

SIR CHARLES WYVLLLE THOMSON.

 

SKETCH OF SIR C. WYVILLE THOMSON.

THE name of Sir Charles Wyville Thomson is inseparably associated with the first explorations of the depths of the ocean, and with having proved that abundant forms of animal life lived there where it had been believed that only a few scattering organisms were able to maintain an isolated and precarious existence. Professor Thomson was born at Bonsyde, Linlithgowshire, Scotland, March 5, 1830, and died on the 10th of March, 1882. His father was a surgeon in the service of the East India Company, and spent most of his life abroad. His grandfather was a distinguished clergyman of Edinburgh; and his great-grandfather was "Principal Clerke of Chancellary" in the time of the Rebellion of 1745. He went to school at Merchiston Castle Academy, which was then conducted by Mr. Charles Chalmers, a brother of the eminent Rev. Dr. Chalmers, after which he entered the medical course of the University of Edinburgh, in 1845. After three years of study here, he began to feel the effects of overwork, and, as a means of gaining a year's rest, we are told, he took the lectureship on botany in Queen's College, Aberdeen. In the following year he was appointed to lecture on the same subject in Marischal College and University. In 1853 he was chosen to the professorship of Natural History in the Queen's College, Cork, and a year after that to the chair of Mineralogy and Geology in the Queen's College, Belfast. He distinguished himself from the very beginning of his active career as an investigator among the lower forms of animal life. His first published paper appears to have been one on the application of photography to the compound microscope, which was read before the British Association in 1850. While at Aberdeen he published several papers on the Polyzoa and Sertularian Zoöphytes of Scotland, and some speculations on the development of certain medusoid forms, which attracted notice and were considered too daring by Johnston and Edward Forbes. During this period, too, he entered upon those researches of the crinoids of past times and the crinoidal forms of modern times, of which he took Comatula rosacea as a typical specimen, which, with their direct and indirect results, led him up to the grand work of his life. A British pentacrinus had been discovered and described by Vaughn Thompson thirty years before, and determined by him to be but the young stage of the "rosy feather-star," but nothing more bad been learned about it. Professor Thomson undertook to complete the investigation and fill out the life-history of the animal; and the account of his researches was given to the Royal Society in 1862 and published in the volume of the "Philosophical Transactions" for 1865. This investigation on the pentacrinoid stages of comatula was but a part of a series of observations on the genus Pentacrinus itself, and Professor Thomson collected a mass of material with the object of writing a memoir on the group.

Up to nearly this time, it had not been believed by scientific men that life did or could exist below a certain depth of the sea. Professor Forbes had admitted the existence of a zone of deep-sea coral extending from fifty fathoms below the surface to an unknown depth, a region in which, he held, "as we descend deeper and deeper, its inhabitants become more and more modified and fewer and fewer, indicating our approach toward an abyss where life is either extinguished or exhibits but a few sparks to mark its lingering presence." This skepticism, however, was becoming weaker under the testimony of living specimens that were from time to time brought up from undoubtedly great depths.

About 1864, Mr. G. O. Sars, of the Norway Fisheries Commission, dredged up a number of specimens of a strange crinoid from a depth of seven hundred feet, and, continuing to dredge, found an abundance of animal life at about the same depth. Professor Thomson was invited by Sars's father, the illustrious Professor Michael Sars, to visit Christiania and see the specimens. The two, after examining them, concluded that they were closely related to one of the fossil genera, allied to the family of the Apiocrinidæ. Here, then, they had a living representative of a group supposed to be extinct, and of a form which had lived over from the Cretaceous epoch.

In 1868 Dr. Carpenter, being engaged in investigations on a living crinoid from the West Indies, visited Professor Thomson to discuss the subject in which they were both interested; and on this occasion Thomson told his visitor that the one unexplored field awaiting the investigation of naturalists was the sea; that he was convinced that when explored it would yield immense treasures to science; and suggested to him to use his influence with the Admiralty to secure the grant of a vessel, suitably fitted up for deep-sea research. The use of the surveying-ship Lightning was granted, and with it a cruise was made in the North Atlantic Ocean in August and September, 1878. Among the results of the expedition was the procuring of evidence that animal life was varied and abundant at depths of between six and seven hundred fathoms; that great masses of water at different temperatures were moving about, each in its particular course; and that many of the deep-sea forms of life were closely related to fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous periods.

In 1869 the surveying-ship Porcupine was lent for exploration, and made a survey of the west coast of Ireland, under the scientific direction of Mr. Gwyn Jeffries, and of the Bay of Biscay and the track of the Lightning's survey under Professor Thomson. The Porcupine was lent again in 1870, but Professor Thomson was prevented by ill-health from engaging in the surveys, and they were conducted to Gibraltar by Mr. Gwyn Jeffries, and in the Mediterranean by Dr. Carpenter. By the time the Porcupine's survey was completed, and under the promptings of the results obtained in the previous surveys, an extensive scientific interest in work of this kind was awakened. A representation was made to the Government by the council of the Royal Society, urging that an expedition be dispatched to investigate the great oceans and take an outline survey of their bottoms. The proposition received general support, and was acceded to by the Government, who granted the Challenger, a main-deck corvette of 2,306 tons, for the use of the expedition.

Captain G. S. Nares, R. N., was called from the survey of the Gulf of Suez to take charge of the vessel, and the second place in command was given to Commander J. P. Maclear, R. N., son of the late Astronomer Royal at the Cape of Good Hope. Professor Thomson was given the scientific direction of the expedition, and took as his associates Mr. J. J. Wild, of Zurich, private secretary; Mr. J. Y. Buchanan, of Edinburgh, chemist; and Mr. II. A. Moseley, Dr. von Willemoes Suhm, and Mr. John Murray, naturalists. The vessel was fitted up with all the appliances which the forethought of the naval experts and scientific men interested in the preparation for the expedition could devise for making the delicate and often complicated observations which were to be undertaken, some of which had hardly been attempted before on other than an experimental scale. The plans were prepared by the Admiralty in conjunction with a committee of the Royal Society, and reasonable liberty of variation from them, when circumstances might make it expedient, was allowed to the two chiefs. The personal composition of the expedition was changed during the voyage by the recall of Captain Nares, to take charge of an Arctic expedition, and by the death of Dr. Willemoes Suhm. Otherwise the plan was carried out essentially as arranged in the beginning. The special object of the expedition was to investigate the physical and biological condition of the great ocean-basins.

The Challenger left Sheerness December 17, 1872, and crossed the Atlantic four times, making a course of nearly twenty thousand miles during 1873; in 1874 she went southward from the Cape of Good Hope, spent nearly a month among the southern ice, dipping into the Antarctic Circle as far as she could with safety, then traversed the seas of Australia and New Zealand, made observations in the Malay Archipelago, and reached Hong-Kong in November, after making a course of more than seventeen thousand miles; in 1875 she traversed the Pacific, making a course of about twenty thousand miles, and in the early part of 1876 she crossed the Atlantic for the fifth time, to fill up blanks in her former observations, finally reaching England in May.

During this course of 68,890 miles, 362 stations were established, and observations and collections made at them. The magnitude of the collections is illustrated in a statement made by Professor Alexander Agassiz, that, "if a single individual, having the knowledge of eighteen or twenty of the specialists into whose hands they were to be placed, were to work them up, he would most certainly require from seventy to seventy-five years of hard work to bring out the results which the careful study of the different departments ought to yield." They were assigned to various gentlemen recognized as authorities in different departments for description group by group.

The most prominent and remarkable result of the voyage was the final establishment of the fact that the distribution of living beings has no depth-limit, but that animals of all the marine invertebrate classes, and probably others also, exist over the whole of the flora of the ocean. But, although life is thus universally extended, probably the number of species, as of individuals, diminishes after a certain depth is reached.

Professor Thomson had been led by his researches in the Lightning to the belief that the chief formation now going on in the bed of the Atlantic was a chalk, "the chalk of the Cretaceous period." This belief grew more firm with continued investigations, but was modified after the Challenger Expedition, when the species deposited were found to be in very few instances identical with those of the chalk, or even with those of the modern tertiaries. "But," he added, in his address on the subject before the British Association, in 1876, "although the species, as we usually regard species, are not identical, the general character of the assemblage of animals is much more nearly allied to the cretaceous than to any recent fauna."

Professor Thomson had been elected in 1870, previous to the dispatch of the Challenger Expedition, Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh, succeeding Dr. Allman. He was only relieved from duties during the expedition, and held the professorship until October, 1881, when he resigned it upon a retiring allowance granted him by the Senatus. Immediately on Professor Thomson's return, testimonials of appreciation of his services to science began to come in from various quarters, lie had already been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1869. He was now knighted in June, 1876; then he was awarded one of the gold medals of the Royal Society; was toasted by Professor Huxley at a scientific banquet given at Edinburgh in honor of the expedition; was created by the King of Sweden a knight of the Order of the Polar Star at Upsala, where he went with Professor Balfour, as a representative of the Edinburgh Senatus, to attend the tercentenary of the ancient university; was made LL. D. at Aberdeen, D. C. L. at Dublin, a Doctor of Philosophy at Jena, D. Sc. and Fellow of various British and foreign societies. In 1877 he was appointed to deliver the Rede Lecture at Cambridge. In 1878 he presided over the Geographical Section of the British Association, and took as the subject of his address, "The Advances which have been made in Late Years in the Application of the Physical Sciences to the Illustration of the General Condition of the Earth." He was also Vice-President of the Jury on Raw Products at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. He took the lead in organizing the School of Art in Belfast, under the Science and Art Department, and was the chairman of the first board of directors. He was a Conservative in politics, and was a magistrate and Commissioner of Supply for the county of Linlithgow.

His health, never very vigorous, was not improved during his voyage on the Challenger. In June of 1879 he was attacked with paralysis, and had to suspend the conduct of his classes in the university, and lay aside the work of superintending the compilation of the Challenger's researches. He was never able to work steadily afterward. He had a second attack about four months before his death, after which he seemed to be getting along through the winter tolerably well, till about two weeks before his death, when he got a severe chill from exposure, from which he never recovered.

Sir Wyville Thomson's principal literary works include "The Depths of the Sea," containing the accounts of the expeditions of the Lightning and the Porcupine, in which is given all that is known as to the records of the existence of deep-sea life up to 1865; the "Voyage of the Challenger. The Atlantic," in two volumes, giving a preliminary account of the general results of the Challenger Expedition; and his part of the work in the formal official report of the expedition, of which he lived to see only the first three volumes completed. At the time he was prostrated, he was preparing for the press a narrative of the voyage, to appear in the official work, based on one drawn up by Staff-Commander Tizard, the chief commanding officer of the Challenger. He also delivered several public addresses before scientific and popular bodies, which were marked by clearness of statement and sustained interest. The departments of zoölogy to which he devoted most attention were those which included the corals, crinoids, and sponges, and upon these his opinion was regarded as of great weight. He was, says "Nature," speaking of his residence at Belfast, "something besides an enthusiastic biologist. . . . By interesting himself not only in what concerned the college, but even in the welfare of the town in which it was located, he soon gathered around him a host of intelligent and warm-hearted friends. In social life, it was but an accident that would reveal the biologist, and one witnessed only the general culture and the artistic taste of a well-bred man."

His associate in the Challenger Expedition, Mr. Moseley, has given, in a notice in the "Academy," a graphic sketch of his personality as it manifested itself during the observations on board the vessel. "His enthusiasm," says Mr. Moseley, "with regard to everything connected with the dredging, sounding, and various physical and chemical operations carried on in the deep sea during the cruise, knew no bounds. He spent hours on deck watching them, and waiting for the dredge to come up, and though, as time wore on, the interest of the seamen and naval officers in the arrival of the dredge or trawl at the surface failed, and that even of the remainder of the scientific staff flagged, he was never known to be absent at the moment it appeared at the ship's side, whatever the weather, but was to be seen peering down into the water, eagerly attempting to diagnose the contents of the net when it was still dipping in and out of the sea-surface as the ship rolled to and fro. When once it was on board, he would eagerly grope for treasures, squeezing each cephalopod between his fingers, always with a lurking hope to find a belemnite's bone in it, or expecting at last to grasp a trilobite. These never came, but there was an abundance of other wonders."

Concluding his sketch, Mr. Moseley says: "Sir Wyville was an excellent lecturer, a most genial companion, and an excellent host. He was fond of amusements of all kinds, and was never happier than when he went on shore from the Challenger in some out-of-the-way island, with his gun on his shoulder, in pursuit of birds-of-paradise, or other treasures."

A fund of five hundred guineas has been raised by subscription for erecting a memorial to Sir Wyville Thomson; with respect to which it has been decided that a bust by Mr. J. T. Hutchinson, R S. A., shall be placed in the University Hall, Edinburgh, and that what is left of the fund shall be devoted to putting a stained-glass window in the church of St. Michael at Linlithgow.