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14 March 2006

Lecture Theatre renamed in honour of D'arcy Thompson

The name of one of Scotland's greatest mathematicians and biologists will be honoured this weekend when the University of Dundee renames one of its main lecture theatres The D'Arcy Thompson Lecture Theatre.

The present Tower Extension Lecture Theatre has just been extensively refurbished and will now take on the new name.

D'Arcy Thompson, who was the first Chair of Biology at what was then University College Dundee in 1885, has been described as "the first biomathematician" for his research into the mathematical principles of nature, work which would culminate in 1917 in the publication of his landmark book On Growth & Form.

The renaming ceremony will be carried out by Dr Simon Singh, the acclaimed writer and broadcaster, who is delivering the Saturday Evening Lecture in the theatre this weekend and is a confirmed fan of Thompson's work.

"D'Arcy Thompson was an incredible man, a true polymath. He started off studying medicine and later became a Greek scholar, a naturalist and an accomplished mathematician. By coupling two of these interests he became the world's first biomathematician, attempting to unravel the natural world via numbers and geometry" said Dr Singh.

Professor Alistair Watson, head of Mathematics at the University, said, "I am particularly pleased that the University is going to remember D'Arcy Thompson in this way. The work he did in Dundee laid the foundations of mathematical biology, and the research of the present mathematical biology group in Dundee is of course hugely influenced by everything that he did."

Dr Singh's lecture on Saturday is, "The Big Bang: History of the World in 60 Minutes". It starts at 6 pm, admission is free and all are welcome to attend.

D'Arcy Thompson

At the age of 24, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) took up the first Chair of Biology at University College Dundee in January 1885. Born in Edinburgh, he studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities before taking up his position in Dundee.

One of his greatest achievements during his 32 years in Dundee was the creation of a large and impressive Zoology Museum. He collected specimens from all over the world, and because of his friendships with the Dundee whalers he was able to boast one of the finest collections of Arctic zoology in the world.

The specimens in Thompson's Zoology Museum provided the bedrock for his ongoing research into the mathematical principles of nature, work which would culminate in 1917 in the publication of his landmark book On Growth & Form. It pioneered the science of mathematical biology and has been hailed as the second greatest biological textbook ever written (after Darwin's Origin of Species). It was, however, just one of around 300 articles and books published during his career.

That same year Thompson left Dundee to take up the Chair of Natural History at the University of St Andrews, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He died in 1948, still teaching up to the age of 87, having been awarded a knighthood in 1937.

The Zoology museum at Dundee was dismantled when the building was demolished in the 1950s to make way for what is now the Tower Building at the University - the new lecture theatre actually stands close to where the Zoology collection was located).

Many of the larger specimens were sent to Edinburgh or London. A smaller version of the Zoology Museum has since been created in the Biological Sciences Institute at Dundee, displaying many of his original specimens and some fine pieces presented to him, like the King Penguin brought back by his friend Shackleton from his 1907 expedition.

Due to his growing scientific reputation, Thompson was asked to represent the British Government in an international inquiry into the Fur Seal Industry. Throughout the 19th century, the Arctic Fur Seal was hunted for its valuable fur and blubber. In 1896 and 1897, Thompson went on lengthy expeditions to the Bering Sea to assess the fur seal's declining numbers. Both Russia and the United States had hunting interests in this area, and Thompson's diplomacy avoided an international incident between them.

His final report drew attention not only to the drop in Fur Seal numbers, but also to the near extinction of the Sea Otter and the threat to whale populations. He became one of the first people in the world to press governments for conservation agreements, and his recommendations contributed to the issuing of species protection orders. Following this he was appointed as Scientific Adviser to the Fisheries Board of Scotland, and later as a representative to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

For more information contact:


Roddy Isles
Head of Press
University of Dundee
Nethergate Dundee, DD1 4HN
TEL: 01382 384910
E-MAIL: r.isles@dundee.ac.uk