Outsider scientists: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, biology and art

One of the things that first attracted me to HPS was that I got to study losers. People who lost debates, people who lost out in the received histories, people who lost credibility. Understanding why they lost, or have been displaced from history, and reviving their views while subjecting them to fresh analysis, are things that I have come to love. It was for this reason that as soon as I saw Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology I immediately wrote to the book reviews editor of the BJHS (who also keeps a very fine blog) to bag a copy. In the preface to this edited collection, Michael Dietrich and Oren Harman write

 No one likes an outsider. They know it all, haven’t paid their dues, and often think little of the rules everyone else has been required to play by – except that outsiders are also sometimes godsends, blowing in like a felicitous wind, carrying new energy and whispering new truths. Outsiders often see things differently than those who have been gazing at a problem for a long time, and it is this perspective that makes them so valuable.

Outsiders are of course not necessarily losers. The list of figures addressed in this collection include Gregor Mendel (big winner in the long run), Louis Pasteur (winner then and now), Erwin Schrödinger (status indeterminate between winner and loser) and David Hull (tiger blood). Nevertheless, outsiders exist in the same territory as losers, what with the world being set against them. With these general interests explained I can turn to the reason for this post.

The Henry Moore Institute here in Leeds have produced an exhibit on the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson titled ‘D’Arcy Thompson’s on Growth and Form‘. It is still in town until the 17th of August and well worth a visit.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thompson is not a figure I have worked on, though I know him to be something of an outsider. Best remembered today for his 1917 book  On Growth and Form, Thompson is recorded in the history of biology as a problematic figure, one set against the world as he found it. At the turn of the twentieth century, while the rest of biological science was busying itself with experimentation, turning life on life, uncovering Darwinian evolutionary lineages and so on, Thompson stressed the constraining influence of structure upon organic development, the results of which could be mathematized and modelled. Thompson’s dedication to the close and detailed study of natural forms made him appear anachronistic both then and now. However, it is my pleasure to report that some cutting-edge HPS research has begun to challenge this received view. Thompson can in fact be made much less of an outsider provided we appreciate the disciplinary context(s) in which worked. In research very recently published by Maurizio Esposito, it is instead argued that “Thompson’s mathematical morphology was not the science of a loner and his ideas on evolution were not so ‘heretical‘”.  (If you have trouble scaling the pay wall, let me know). The Henry Moore exhibit can help to flesh out this picture, focusing as it does on two aspects of Thompson’s professional life not typically addressed synthetically; his teaching, and his influence on the artist Henry Moore.

Regarding his teaching, the bulk of the material has been loaned to the Henry Moore by the University of Dundee.

Plaster models used by Thompson. All rights to the image are property of the University of Dundee.

Plaster models used by Thompson. All rights to the image are property of the University of Dundee.

The above photograph is of one of the more colourful series that Dundee have lent to Leeds, a set of plaster models depicting ‘development of a primitive chordate’. The accompanying text explains that nothing is known of its origins. This is where HPS comes in! On looking at them I was immediately struck by how alike they were to the wax models that we have on display at the University of Leeds Museum for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. A couple of years back, I was among a number of researchers who studied objects very much like these, which we then blogged about here, here and here. I remembered the name of Ziegler, arguably the most important C19th and early C20th manufacturer of medical and biological wax models, and so with a few google searches, I was able to pinpoint the original wax series that Thompson’s plaster models had been  based on.

Ziegler wax models. No idea who owns the rights to the image! If it’s you, get in touch and I’ll hook your link up.

To be certain that the models on display at the Henry Moore were the same series as these Ziegler models, I looked at the models numbered 17, 4 and 20 (pictured) on display in the Henry Moore, and sure enough, the models correspond to one another. If you actually visit the display in Leeds, you can see what a massive difference there is between the detailed colouring of these wax models, and the more lurid and much less delicate paint job that Thompson’s plaster versions received. Was this deliberate? Either a) to save money, or b) so that Thompson could make clearer more definite points about structure as he taught his students? Either way, breathing life back into Thompson’s class room – by investigating these models and the others currently on display, including Blashka models of a Jellyfish, flatworm lava, and Polychaete –  is one important way to help diminish his status as an outsider or loner.

Lastly, the exhibit includes drafts and sketches by Henry Moore, which we are told were heavily influenced by Thompson’s scientific work. They are amorphous, flowing, ambiguous, with faces in the wrong places, that sort of thing. (You can tell I know quite a bit about art). Here I would like to have seen something of the ‘evolution’ of Moore. We are given only the point at which he is supposed to have come under the influence of Thompson, but without seeing his earlier sketches and ways of working, we (or rather I) can’t see what difference Thompson made. There is every chance that studying Thompson’s influence within the art world, and the extent to which he himself was influenced by art, particularly his interests in classicism – which gained greater social significance at precisely this time, following the First World War and into the years of reconstruction – might embed his science all the more firmly in his historical context, helping to make Thompson much less of a loner or outsider.


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