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Papers and other material relating to C. Wyville Thomson

Identifier: Coll-1327

Scope and Contents

The material in the collection consists of:

  1. - at E94.90: a letter from Charles Wyville Thomson written on 2 June 1850 at the home of the Reverend Ainslie and addressed to 'My Dear Sir' - it refers to how he had met with a kind reception from Mr. and Mrs. Ainslie who 'pressed him to dine with them and to take a bed at their home', and how the following day they were to take him to Sir David Brewster's - the letter goes on to say that 'The Chair is not yet filled up, and no one is spoken of as likely to fill it' - it mentions that the Marquis of Ailsa is the Patron and that 'He has acceded to the change being made from a Chair of Civil to one of Natural History'.
  2. - at E2000.07: a collection of circa 30 letters covering the period 1841-1874 mostly to Charles Wyville Thomson including: those from Geo. Robertson, Edinburgh, and from Cork, Ireland; from R. Redfern; from R. Davison and C.P.Nichol - also a small number from Thomson to Mrs. Thomson and to his son - also an accounts sheet from thomson to Glen and Henderson 1841-1845
  3. - at E2002.20: a letter from Charles Wyville Thomson written 17 March n.y. at Strandtown, Belfast, to the Secretary of the Palaeontographical Society saying that he and Dr. W.B.Carpenter (1813-1885) have been working on papers for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and that his own paper 'will form the basis of the natural History introduction to the Monog: of the Crinoids' - he also refers to Marsupites belonging to the Palaeozoic group 'not Comatula'


  • Creation: 1841-1874


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Open to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance of visit.

Biographical / Historical

The Scottish zoologist and chief scientist on the 'Challenger' expedition Charles Wyville Thomson was born at Bonsyde in Linlithgow, West Lothian, on 5 March 1830. He was the son of a surgeon in the service of the British East India Company, and was baptized Wyville Thomas Charles Thomson. He was educated at Merchiston Castle School and then he studied at Edinburgh University.

In 1850 he was appointed Lecturer on Botany at Kings College, Aberdeen, and then Professor of Botany at Marischal College, 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, and 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 Chair of Natural History at Edinburgh University.

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 dredgings 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. These researches 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 his work The Depths of the Sea. The results which 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. He was selected as chief scientist, and the ship sailed on 23 December 1872. The Challenger Expedition would be deemed a great success, and on his return Wyville Thomson received a number of academic honours, as well as a knighthood. In 1877 he was also created a Knight of the Polar Star on a visit to Sweden.

Thomson's published work includes The Depths of the Sea (1873) and The Voyage of the Challenger in the Atlantic (1880).

Professor Sir Charles Wyville Thomson died at Bonsyde on 10 March 1882.


1 box

2 folders

Physical Location

E94.90; E2000.07; E2002.20

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased November 1994, Accession no: E94.90; Acquired 2000, Accession no: E2000.07; Purchased October 2002, Accession no: E2002.20

Related Materials

Also contained within Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library, are the following:

  1. - at Gen. 28-31 : the Challenger Papers. Special Collections has a rudimentary handlist to this collection - Handlist-46
  2. - at E2010.07: there are some additional Plates for the Reports of the Challenger Expedition - showing Gasteropoda
  3. - at MS. 2708: a volume of notes of lectures given by Professor C. Wyville Thomson probably taken down by W. Watson Cheyne in Summer Session 1871 from 2 May 1871 - the volume is circa 318 pages and includes loose drawings at the rear (Accession E90.106)
  4. - at Gen. 1426/135-138 and at Gen. 526: there are letters from Thomson to Sir A. Geikie arranging meetings, 1880, 1881, and some no year
  5. - at Dk.6.13: there are a large number of letters to Thomson from Alexander Agassiz, 1867-1881
  6. - other items which can be checked more closely by looking at the paper-based Manuscript Index

Processing Information

Compiled by Graeme D. Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections.

Material relating to Professor Sir Charles Wyville Thomson (1830-1882)
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379