Charles Wyville Thomson

Sir Charles Wyville Thomson FRSE FRS FLS FGS FZS (5 March 1830 – 10 March 1882) was a Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist. He served as the chief scientist on the Challenger expedition; his work there revolutionised oceanography and led to his knighthood.

Sir Charles Wyville Thomson
FMIB 36374 Sir Wyville Thomson.jpeg
Thomson in 1923
Born5 March 1830
Died10 March 1882 (aged 52)
Alma materMerchiston Castle School[1]
University of Edinburgh[1]
Known forChallenger expedition
Royal Medal (1876)
Scientific career
FieldsMarine zoology
InstitutionsUniversity of Aberdeen[1] (1850–1851)
Marischal College[1] (1851–52)
Queen's College, Cork
Queen's University of Belfast
Charles Wyville Thomson by John Hutchison
Charles Wyville Thomson by John Hutchison


Thomson was born at Bonsyde, in Linlithgow, West Lothian, on 5 March 1830, the son of Andrew Thomson, a surgeon in the service of the East India Company, and Sarah Ann Drummond Smith. He was baptised Wyville Thomas Charles Thomson, and only changed his name late in life, in 1876.[2]

He was educated under Charles Chalmers at Merchiston Castle School, then from 1845 studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (graduating MD). However, his focus turned from medicine towards natural science, and he joined the Botanical Society of Edinburgh in 1847, and soon after became secretary to the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh. In 1850 he was attending the botany class of John Hutton Balfour at the university.

In 1850 he was appointed lecturer of botany, and in 1851 professor of botany, at the University of Aberdeen. In 1853 he became a professor of natural history in Queen's College, Cork, Ireland, succeeding Professor Hincks. A year later he was nominated to the chair of mineralogy and geology at the Queen's University of Belfast.

In 1855 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, his proposer being his former tutor, John Hutton Balfour. He served as the Society's Vice President from 1877 to 1882. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1869.[3]

In 1860 was transferred to the chair of natural history at the same institution. In 1868 he assumed the duties of professor of botany at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, and finally in 1870 he received the natural history chair at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1871–72 he served as President of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh.[4]


Wyville Thomson is remembered for his studies of the biological conditions of the deep seas. Being interested in crinoids, and prompted by the results of the dredgings of Michael Sars in the deep sea off the Norwegian coasts, he persuaded the Royal Navy to grant him use of HMS Lightning and HMS Porcupine for deep sea dredging expeditions in the summers of 1868 and 1869. They showed that animal life existed down to depths of 650 fathoms (1200 m), that all marine invertebrate groups are present at this depth, and that deep-sea temperatures are not as constant as had been supposed, but vary considerably, and indicate oceanic circulation. These results were described in The Depths of the Sea, which he published in 1873.

Challenger expedition

The remarkable hydrographic and zoological results which Wyville Thomson had demonstrated, in addition to the growing demands of ocean telegraphy, soon led to the Royal Navy to grant use of HMS Challenger for a global expedition. Wyville Thomson was selected as chief scientist, and the ship sailed on 23 December 1872.


The Challenger Expedition was deemed a great success, and on his return Wyville Thomson received a number of academic honours, as well as a knighthood. In 1873 he published "Depths of the Sea" based on initial findings from the expedition.[5] In 1880 he published two volumes (having completed writing in 1877), The Voyage of the Challenger in the Atlantic, a preliminary account of the results of the voyage. He spent the next two years working on administrative duties connected with the publication of the full monograph of the voyage. Wyville Thomson had a highly strung mentality, and his health was generally poor throughout his life. He found dealing with publishers over the requirements of publishing 50 volumes of detailed illustration and scientific description enormously stressful. In 1879 he ceased to perform his university duties, gave up overseeing the reports of the expedition in 1881, took to his bed and died a broken man at Bonsyde on 10 March 1882. The publishing was finally completed by his friend and colleague Sir John Murray. Wyville Thomson is commemorated in the stained glass window above the altar in St. Michael's Parish Church, Linlithgow and his headstone is in the churchyard. In addition the Wyville-Thomson Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean is named after him.

St Michael's Kirkyard (1)
The headstone of Charles Wyville Thomson in St. Michael's Parish Churchyard.


Thomson had criticized natural selection, stating it was not enough to explain the evolution of species. Replying in the Nature journal, Charles Darwin commented that "I am sorry to find that Sir Wyville Thomson does not under stand the principle of natural selection, as explained by Mr. Wallace and myself... Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection?"[6]


  • The Depths of the Sea (1873)
  • The Voyage of the Challenger (1877)


In 1853 he married Jane Ramage Dawson. They were parents to Frank Wyville Thomson FRSE (1860-1918).

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e "Sir C. Wyville Thomson". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  2. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF). II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
  3. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  5. ^ Harmsworth Encyclopedia 1905
  6. ^ Darwin, Charles. (1880). Sir Wyville Thomson and Natural Selection. Nature 23: 32.

External links

Atolla jellyfish

Atolla wyvillei, also known as the Atolla jellyfish or Coronate medusa, is a species of deep-sea crown jellyfish (Scyphozoa: Coronatae). It lives in oceans around the world. Like many species of mid-water animals, it is deep red in color. This species was named in honor of Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, chief scientist on the Challenger expedition.

It typically has 20 marginal tentacles and one hypertrophied tentacle which is larger than the rest. This long trailing tentacle is thought to facilitate prey capture.This species is bioluminescent. When attacked, it will launch a series of flashes, whose function is to draw predators who will be more interested in the attacker than itself. This has earned the animal the nickname "alarm jellyfish".Marine biologist Edith Widder created a device based on the Atolla jellyfish's distress flashes called the E-jelly, which has been used successfully and efficiently to lure in mysterious and rarely seen deep-sea animals for filming and documentation. The device's mimicry of the live animal was such that it successfully lured in a giant squid in an expedition financed by Discovery Channel and NHK to find the creature.

Bathybius haeckelii

Bathybius haeckelii was a substance that British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley discovered and initially believed to be a form of primordial matter, a source of all organic life. He later admitted his mistake when it proved to be just the product of a chemical process (precipitation).

In 1868 Huxley studied an old sample of mud from the Atlantic seafloor taken in 1857. When he first examined it, he had found only protozoan cells and placed the sample into a jar of alcohol to preserve it. Now he noticed that the sample contained an albuminous slime that appeared to be criss-crossed with veins.

Huxley thought he had discovered a new organic substance and named it Bathybius haeckelii, in honor of German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel had theorized about Urschleim ("primordial slime"), a protoplasm from which all life had originated. Huxley thought Bathybius could be that protoplasm, a missing link (in modern terms) between inorganic matter and organic life.

Huxley published a description of Bathybius and also wrote to Haeckel to tell him about it. Haeckel was impressed and flattered and procured a sample for himself. In the next edition of his textbook The History of Creation Haeckel suggested that the substance was constantly coming into being at the bottom of the sea. Huxley did not agree but speculated that Bathybius formed a continuous mat of living protoplasm that covered the whole ocean floor.

Other scientists were less enthusiastic. Charles Wyville Thomson examined some samples in 1869 and regarded them as analogous to mycelium. George Charles Wallich claimed that Bathybius was a product of chemical disintegration.

In 1872 the Challenger expedition began; it spent three years studying the oceans. The expedition also took soundings at 361 ocean stations. They did not find any sign of Bathybius, despite the claim that it was a nearly universal substance.

In 1875 ship's chemist John Young Buchanan analyzed a substance that looked like Bathybius from an earlier collected sample. He noticed that it was a precipitate of calcium sulfate from the seawater that had reacted with the preservative liquid (alcohol). Buchanan suspected that all the Bathybius samples had been prepared the same way and notified Thomson, the leader of the expedition. Thomson sent a polite letter to Huxley and told about the discovery.

Huxley realized that he had been too eager and made a mistake. He published part of the letter in Nature and recanted his previous views. Later, during the 1879 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he stated that he was ultimately responsible for spreading the theory and convincing others. Most biologists accepted this acknowledgement of error.

Haeckel, however, did not want to abandon the idea of Bathybius because it was so close to proof of his own theories about Urschleim. He claimed without foundation that Bathybius "had been observed" in the Atlantic. He continued to support this position until 1883.

Huxley's rival George Charles Wallich, in turn, claimed that Huxley had committed deliberate fraud and also accused Haeckel of falsifying data; Haeckel did draw a series of pictures of the evolution of his Urschleim, supposedly based on observations. Other opponents of evolution, including the Duke of Argyll have tried to use the case as an argument against theory evolution.

Bathycrinus aldrichianus

Bathycrinus aldrichianus is a species of sea lily, a crinoid in the family Bathycrinidae. It is native to deep water in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was first described by the Scottish marine zoologist Charles Wyville Thomson (who had been chief scientist on the Challenger Expedition) and named in honour of Pelham Aldrich, a British naval officer and explorer. It is believed to be the crinoid living at the greatest depth.

Bathycrinus gracilis

Bathycrinus gracilis is a species of sea lily, a crinoid in the family Bathycrinidae. It is native to the North Atlantic. It was described by Charles Wyville Thomson.

Biological oceanography

Biological oceanography is the study of how organisms affect and are affected by the physics, chemistry, and geology of the oceanographic system. Biological oceanography mostly focuses on the microorganisms within the ocean; looking at how they are affected by their environment and how that affects larger marine creatures and their ecosystem. Biological oceanography is similar to marine biology, but is different because of the perspective used to study the ocean. Biological oceanography takes a bottom up approach (in terms of the food web), while marine biology studies the ocean from a top down perspective. Biological oceanography mainly focuses on the ecosystem of the ocean with an emphasis on plankton: their diversity (morphology, nutritional sources, motility, and metabolism); their productivity and how that plays a role in the global carbon cycle; and their distribution (predation and life cycle). Biological oceanography also investigates the role of microbes in food webs, and how humans impact the ecosystems in the oceans.

Challenger expedition

The Challenger expedition of 1872–1876 was a scientific exercise that made many discoveries to lay the foundation of oceanography. The expedition was named after the mother vessel, HMS Challenger.

Prompted by Charles Wyville Thomson—of the University of Edinburgh and Merchiston Castle School—the Royal Society of London obtained the use of Challenger from the Royal Navy and in 1872 modified the ship for scientific tasks, equipping her with separate laboratories for natural history and chemistry. The expedition, led by Captain George Nares, sailed from Portsmouth, England, on 21 December 1872. Other naval officers included Commander John Maclear.Under the scientific supervision of Thomson himself, she travelled nearly 70,000 nautical miles (130,000 km; 81,000 mi) surveying and exploring. The result was the Report Of The Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873–76 which, among many other discoveries, catalogued over 4,000 previously unknown species. John Murray, who supervised the publication, described the report as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries". Challenger sailed close to Antarctica, but not within sight of it.

Charles Thomson (disambiguation)

Charles Thomson (1729–1824) was secretary of the Continental Congress.

Charles Thomson or Charlie Thomson may also refer to:

Charles Thomson (artist) (born 1953), English Stuckist artist, painter, poet, photographer

Charlie Thomson (1930–2009), Scottish football goalkeeper who played for Clyde, Chelsea and Nottingham Forest

Charlie Thomson (footballer, born 1905) (1905 – after 1946), father of the above, Scottish football goalkeeper who played for Falkirk, Brighton & Hove Albion and others

Charles Thomson (footballer, born 1878) (1878–1936), full name Charles Bellany Thomson, Scottish footballer who played for Heart of Midlothian and Sunderland

Charles Thomson (footballer, born 1910) (1910–1984), full name Charles Morgan Thomson, Scottish footballer who played for Sunderland

Charles Antoine François Thomson (1845–1898), French colonial administrator

Charles M. Thomson (1877–1943), U.S. Representative from Illinois

Charles Poulett Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham (1799–1841), first Governor of the united Province of Canada

Charles Wyville Thomson (1830–1882), professor of zoology and chief scientist on the Challenger expedition

Charles Thomson (journalist) (born 1988), British journalist specializing in popular black music

Frank Wyville Thomson

Lt Colonel Frank Wyville Thomson FRSE DPH DTM IMS (1860–1918) was a 19th/20th century Scottish military surgeon and expert on tropical medicine who advanced public health in India and a noted amateur naturalist.

George Panton

George A. Panton FRSE (d. 1902) was a 19th century British botanist.

He is thought to have been born in Edinburgh around 1840, possibly the son of William Panton, a clothier.

In 1863 he is noted as a member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and was living at 31 Gayfield Square at the top of Leith Walk.In 1877 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, Sir Archibald Geikie, John Hutton Balfour, and Alexander Buchan.In 1882 he is noted as Secretary of the Birmingham branch of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and is living at 95 Colmore Row.

Giant isopod

A giant isopod is any of the almost 20 species of large isopods (crustaceans distantly related to shrimp and crabs, which are decapods) in the genus Bathynomus. They are abundant in the cold, deep waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Bathynomus giganteus, the species upon which the generitype is based, is often considered the largest isopod in the world, though other comparably poorly known species of Bathynomus may reach a similar size (e.g., B. kensleyi). The giant isopods are noted for their resemblance to the much smaller common woodlouse (pill bug), to which they are related.French zoologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards was the first to describe the genus in 1879 after his colleague Alexander Agassiz collected a juvenile male B. giganteus from the Gulf of Mexico; this was an exciting discovery for both scientists and the public, as at the time the idea of a lifeless or "azoic" deep ocean had only recently been refuted by the work of Sir Charles Wyville Thomson and others. No females were recovered until 1891.

Giant isopods are of little interest to most commercial fisheries, but are infamous for attacking and destroying fish caught in trawls. Specimens caught in the Americas and Japan are sometimes seen in public aquariums.

HMS Challenger (1858)

HMS Challenger was a steam-assisted Royal Navy Pearl-class corvette launched on 13 February 1858 at the Woolwich Dockyard. She was the flagship of the Australia Station between 1866 and 1870.As part of the North America and West Indies Station she took part in 1862 in operations against Mexico, including the occupation of Veracruz. Assigned as the flagship of Australia Station in 1866 and in 1868 undertook a punitive operation against some Fijian natives to avenge the murder of a missionary and some of his dependents. She left the Australian Station in late 1870.She was picked to undertake the first global marine research expedition: the Challenger expedition.

The Challenger carried a complement of 243 officers, scientists and crew when she embarked on her 68,890-nautical-mile (127,580 km) journey.

The United States Space Shuttle Challenger was named after the ship. Her figurehead is on display in the foyer of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

HMS Lightning

Ten ships of the Royal Navy have been named HMS Lightning.

The first HMS Lightning (1691) was an 8-gun fire ship launched in 1691 and captured by the French in 1705.

The second HMS Lightning (1740) was an 8-gun bomb vessel launched in 1740 and captured off Livorno during the War of the Austrian Succession in 1746.

The 14-gun sloop HMS Viper (1746), launched in 1746, was converted to a fire ship and renamed Lightning in 1755. She was sold in 1762

The 14-gun sloop HMS Sylph (1776), purchased in 1776, was converted to a fire ship and renamed Lightning in 1779. She was sold in 1783.

The fifth HMS Lightning (1806) was a Thais-class fireship launched in 1806, converted to a sloop in 1808, and sold in 1816.

The sixth HMS Lightning (1823), launched in 1823, was a paddle steamer. She served initially as a packet ship, but was later converted into an oceanographic survey vessel. She was used by Charles Wyville Thomson and William Benjamin Carpenter to survey the north Atlantic in 1868.

The seventh HMS Lightning (1829) was an 18-gun sloop launched in 1829, renamed Larne in 1832, and broken up in 1866.

The eighth HMS Lightning (1876), was a torpedo boat, built by John Thornycroft. She was the first seagoing vessel to be armed with self-propelled torpedoes. She was later known as TB-1.

The ninth HMS Lightning (1895), launched in 1895, was a Janus-class destroyer. She served in World War I until she struck a mine in 1915 that sank her.

The tenth HMS Lightning (G55), launched in 1940, was an L-class destroyer that served in World War II. The German motor torpedo boat S-55 torpedoed and sank her on 12 March 1943 in the Strait of Sicily.

HMS Porcupine (1844)

HMS Porcupine was a Royal Navy 3-gun wooden paddle steamer. It was built in Deptford Dockyard and served as a survey ship.

History of marine biology

Marine biology is a hybrid subject that combines aspects of organismal function, ecological interaction and the study of marine biodiversity. The earliest studies of marine biology trace back to the Phoenicians and the Greeks who are known as the initial explorers of the oceans and their composition. The first recorded observations on the distribution and habits of marine life were made by Aristotle (384-322 BC).Observations made in the earliest studies of marine biology provided an impetus for the age of discovery and exploration that followed. During this time, a vast amount of knowledge was gained about life that exists in the oceans. Individuals who contributed significantly to this pool of knowledge include Captain James Cook (1728-1779), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Wyville Thomson (1830-1882).These individuals took part in some of the more well-known expeditions of all time, making foundation contributions to marine biology. The era was important for the history of marine biology, but naturalists were still constrained by available technologies that limited their ability to effectively locate and accurately examine species that inhabited the deep parts of the ocean.

The subsequent creation of marine laboratories was another important development because marine scientists now had places to conduct research and process their specimens from expeditions. Technological advances, such as sound ranging, scuba diving gear, submersibles and remotely operated vehicles, progressively made it easier to study the deep ocean. This allowed marine biologists to explore depths people once thought never existed.

Nephropsis atlantica

Nephropsis atlantica, sometimes called the scarlet lobsterette or scarlet clawed lobster, is a species of lobster from the Atlantic Ocean.

Pelham Aldrich

Admiral Pelham Aldrich, CVO (8 December 1844 – 12 November 1930) was a Royal Navy officer and explorer, who became Admiral Superintendent of Portsmouth Docks.

Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm

Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm (September 11, 1847 – September 13, 1875) was a German naturalist who served aboard the Challenger expedition.

Willemoes-Suhm was born in Glückstadt, Schleswig-Holstein. After starting to study law at the University of Bonn, Willemoes-Suhm left Bonn to study zoology at Munich under Professor Karl von Siebold. Beginning in April 1869, he studied at the University of Göttingen, and gained his doctorate there. In 1870, he moved to Kiel, where he met Professor Karl von Kupffer, and there he collected specimens in the Bay of Kiel, which he analysed for his habilitation. In 1871, Willemoes-Suhm began to lecture at the University of Munich. In 1872, he was on board the Phønix with the Danish Faeroer Expedition, and described the vertebrates and polychaetes of the Faroe Islands. The Phønix docked in Leith, and while in Edinburgh, Willemoes-Suhm met Charles Wyville Thomson, who would lead the Challenger expedition later that year.Willemoes-Suhm joined the Challenger expedition at the last minute, and worked on many of the crustaceans that voyage discovered. He died on September 13, 1875, during the journey from Hawaii to Tahiti, and was buried at sea after a short illness with erysipelas. The genus Willemoesia is named after him, as is Suhm Island in Royal Sound (Kerguelen Archipelago), which was first charted on the voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger. He was awarded the Challenger Medal posthumously.

William Abbott Herdman

Sir William Abbott Herdman FRS FRSE FLS (5 September 1858, Edinburgh – 21 July 1924) was a Scottish marine zoologist and oceanographer.

Wyville Thomson Ridge

The Wyville Thomson Ridge is a bathymetric feature of the North Atlantic Ocean floor ca. 200 km in length, located between the Faroe Islands and Scotland. The ridge separates the Faroe–Shetland Channel to the north from the Rockall Trough to the south. Its significance lies in the fact that it forms part of the barrier between the colder bottom waters of the Arctic and the warmer waters of the North Atlantic.The Wyville Thomson Ridge is named after Charles Wyville Thomson who pioneered the first exploration of the area.

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