D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson as teacher

Friday 29 June 2018

There has been a lot of research interest in the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson in the last few years. 2017 marked the centenary of his seminal text, On Growth on Form which was celebrated with an international conference hosted jointly by the University of St Andrews and University of Dundee. The website D’Arcy 150 was set up in 2010 to celebrate 150 years since his birth. Recently, while appraising an uncatalogued archive collection, a notebook came to our attention which highlights a different aspect of D’Arcy’s life – that of teacher.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson teaching a class in 1944. Image taken by the British Council (UYM/500)

Thompson, a Cambridge graduate, was appointed a professor of Biology at University College, Dundee (which was at that time still an independent institution) in 1884, at the young age of 25. In 1917, he moved to St Andrews to take up the post of Professor of Natural History, a post he retained until his death in 1948. Thompson’s academic career at the two institutions spanned an amazing 64 years!

Catherine Carstairs, a local to St Andrews, was a student at St Andrews from 1929 to 1932. Included in her papers (ms38683/1/1) are her notebooks from her time as an undergraduate. In her second year Catherine took Natural Sciences. She kept her notes from her classes in Geology and Botany but it was her notes from her Zoology class, taught by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, that caught our attention.

Natural History class syllabus from the University of St Andrews Calendar 1929-1930 (StA LF1104.C2)

Her lecture notes include delightful diagrams from D’Arcy’s lectures, reminiscent of the illustrations in On Growth and Form:

Example of Catherine Carstairs (later Catherine Forrest) notes from a Zoology lecture by D’Arcy Thompson, 1929-1930 (ms38683/1/1)
Example of Catherine Carstairs (later Catherine Forrest) notes from a Zoology lecture by D’Arcy Thompson, 1929-1930 (ms38683/1/1)
Example of Catherine Carstairs (later Catherine Forrest) notes from a Zoology lecture by D’Arcy Thompson, 1929-1930 (ms38683/1/1)

The notes also include a diagram of a bird (Avis), which Catherine perhaps based on the bird skeleton D’Arcy is pictured with in the iconic image of him.

Left image: D’Arcy Thompson in 1939 (ms48534-ph-2-16). Right image page from Catherine Carstairs (later Catherine Forrest) notes from a Zoology lecture by D’Arcy Thompson, 1929-1930 (ms38683/1/1)

The obituary for D’Arcy in The Times called him ‘one of the last of the Great Orators’. David Burt, former student of D’Arcy’s and Lecturer in Zoology at St Andrews, in his recollections said of D’Arcy

Generations of students passed through his hands and the same pellucid style and learning that characterized all he wrote and said turned his courses of lectures into an inspiring and liberal education.

From http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Thompson_DArcy.html

Letter from Alfred Forrest to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, 3 November 1945 (ms46518)
Letter from Alfred Forrest to David Burt, 7 October 1950 (ms48539/1)

Catherine graduated with an MA (with second class honours in Classics) in 1932 and became a history teacher. Catherine’s connection with D’Arcy continued through her husband, the sculptor Alfred Forrest. Forrest corresponded with D’Arcy (above) regarding the bronze bust he was commissioned to make for D’Arcy. David Burt, later commissioned Forrest to create a memorial bust of D’Arcy, now held in the University’s Museum Collections.

Image of a bust of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson made by Alfred Forrest (ms48539/1)

Catherine and Alfred Forrest treasured their connection with St Andrews. They left their estate to the benefit of postgraduate students in History and Art. As former residents of Burnwynd on the Lade Braes, they named the trust set up under the terms of Catherine’s will Burnwynd History and Art Ltd. The trust is responsible for the award of grants to support work by registered students of the University on the local history of St Andrews and the History of Art. It makes its awards each May.

Sarah Rodriguez
Principal Archives Assistant

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One reply to "D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson as teacher"

  • Clearing the logjam | Echoes from the Vault
    Tuesday 7 August 2018, 11.01am

    […] The Logjam project began in January of this year and since that time around 223 linear metres of archive material has been reviewed. Around 16% of that has been found to be suitable for de-accessioning (term used for the removal of material from collections). This material is mainly duplicate copies of items already held in our collections, such as University Court minutes, faculty papers or graduation programmes that have come in over the years from a number of different sources across the University. The Logjam report identified that it would take over 50 years to catalogue the material it surveyed, and that wasn’t even the whole of our archive holdings. The report has helped us identify which collections should be tackled first. Additionally, having the time to implement the recommendations of the report through a dedicated project post has been essential. This appraisal process allows us to create much needed space in our stores but also allows us the chance to get to know our collections better. For example, while appraising the uncatalogued Forrest collection we found the delightful D’Arcy Thompson lecture notes recently featured on Echoes. […]


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