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D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

  Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (May 2, 1860–June 21, 1948) was a biologist, mathematician, classics scholar and the author of the 1917 book, On Growth and Form, an influential work of striking originality. Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called On Growth and Form "the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue".[1] Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Thompson was an early mathematical biologist[2], and a contemporary of Francis Galton and Ronald Fisher. He died in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Thomson was appointed Professor of Biology in Dundee (1884), Professor of Natural History at St Andrews (1917) -- a post he held for a record 64 years. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1916, he was awarded the Darwin Medal in 1946, and was knighted in 1937. He was also an outstanding Greek scholar.


On Growth and Form

The central theme of On Growth and Form is that biologists of his day overemphasized the role of evolution, and underemphasized the roles of physical laws and mechanics, as determinants of the form and structure of living organisms. He advocated structuralism as an alternative to survival of the fittest in governing the form of species.  

On the concept of allometry Thompson wrote:

An organism is so complex a thing, and growth so complex a phenomenon, that for growth to be so uniform and constant in all the parts as to keep the whole shape unchanged would indeed be an unlikely and an unusual circumstance. Rates vary, proportions change, and the whole configuration alters accordingly.

Thompson pointed out example after example of correlations between biological forms and mechanical phenomena. He showed the similarity in the forms of jellyfish and the forms of drops of liquid falling into viscous fluid, and between the internal supporting structures in the hollow bones of birds and well-known engineering truss designs. His observations of phyllotaxis (numerical relationships between spiral structures in plants) and the Fibonacci sequence has become a textbook staple.

  Utterly sui generis, the book never quite fits into the mainstream of biological thought. It does not really present any single unifying thesis, nor, in many cases, does it attempt to establish a causal relationship between the forms emerging from physics with the comparable forms seen in biology. It is a work in the "descriptive" tradition; Thompson did not articulate his insights in the form of experimental hypotheses that can be tested. Thompson was aware of this, saying that "This book of mine has little need of preface, for indeed it is 'all preface' from beginning to end."

The huge (1116 pages in an edition currently in print), well-written, and extensively illustrated tome has enchanted and stimulated generations of biologists, architects, artists, and mathematicians, and, of course, those working on the boundaries of disciplines.

Perhaps the most famous part of the work is Chapter XVII, "The Comparison of Related Forms." He explored the degree to which differences in the forms of related animals could be described by means of relatively simple mathematical transformations.


  • "For the harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty." (On Growth and Form, 1917)

See also


  • On Growth and Form, 1917, 2nd ed 1942. ISBN 0-486-67135-6


  1. ^ Bretscher, Otto. Linear algebra with applications. 3rd edition. Pearson Education, Inc., 2005. Page 66.
  2. ^
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "D'Arcy_Wentworth_Thompson". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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