D'Arcy - Overview & D'Arcy's Life

Overview of the Project

The Special Collections Department in St Andrews stores over 30,000 documents related to D’Arcy. Some of the most fascinating letters talk about dinosaurs and other extinct species. These are the ones presented here. They detail correspondence between D’Arcy and Danish artist and paleontologist Gerhard Heilmann during the First World War. In particular they discuss the comparison of related species through mathematical transformations.

What is most interesting is D’Arcy and Heilmann’s use of the transformation method to predict intermediate steps in evolution and the forms of extinct species. Here form means the physical structure, shape or size of an organism. For example, in D’Arcy’s famous book On Growth and Form he uses his method to predict what the pelvis bone of a dinosaur (Camptosaurus), may have looked like. It becomes clear that D’Arcy was not working alone, indeed he had a strong web of connections all across the world with whom he shared ideas. In this way On Growth and Form is very much a collaboration of many great scientists and artists.

Pelvis of (A) Stegosaurus; (B) Camptosaurus
Pelvis of (A) Stegosaurus; (B) Camptosaurus. Original diagrams from On Growth and Form

D'Arcy's Life

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was a Scottish academic who was an expert in many fields, including biology, maths and classics as well as being fluent in many languages. He was born in Edinburgh on 2nd May 1860. His father had the same name as him (D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson) and his mother was Fanny Gamgee. Unfortunately his mother died when he was a baby and so young D’Arcy was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, Joseph Gamgee. Joseph was a veterinary surgeon and it was because of him that D’Arcy fell in love with science. It was his father, Professor of greek at Queen’s College Galway, who gave him a love of the classics. From the age of 10 D’Arcy attended Edinburgh Academy where he won prizes for Classics, Greek Testament, Maths and Modern Languages. After leaving school he enrolled at Edinburgh University to study medicine. However, this lasted only 3 years before he decided instead to study zoology at Trinity College, Cambridge. During his time at Cambridge D’Arcy used his talents for both languages and biology to translate Hermann Müller’s work on the fertilisation of flowers. This book contained not only "original observations on the fertilisation of flowers”, but also explained “the part which insects play”. The work was considered so important that Charles Darwin wrote a preface for it.

In 1884 D’Arcy was appointed Professor of Biology at Dundee University, a position he held for 32 years. Whilst in Dundee he set up a zoology museum which contained specimens he collected on his voyages to the Bering Straits. These voyages were undertaken as part of an investigation into the fur seal industry and D’Arcy was one of the first people to push for conservation agreements. He was to spend the final 31 years of his life at St Andrews where he was appointed to the Chair of Natural History. His record of holding a chair for 64 years will unlikely be broken!

For more information about D'Arcy click here.



Overview & D'Arcy's Life


On Growth and Form


Heilmann & Shufeldt


Maths of Transformations




D'Arcy and Mathematics


Coordinate Transformations


Logarithmic Spirals


Forms of Cells


Forms and Mechanical Efficiency




Wartime and D'Arcy


The Leg as a Pendulum


Recreational Maths


Fibonacci Sequence




All Correspondence Links

Claxton Fidler


Eric Harold Neville


John Marshall


Alfred North Whitehead


Charles Robert Darling


Peter Guthrie Tait


William Peddie


Geoffrey Thomas Bennett


Dorothy Wrinch


Main Index Biographies Index

The support of The Strathmartine Trust towards this website is gratefully acknowledged    

HD & BC © July 2017
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School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland

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