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Biographical entry Thomson, Arthur (1858 - 1935)

MRCS 19 July 1880; FRCS by election 11 April 1907; MB Edinburgh 1880; Hon LLD 1915; MA Oxford 1885; Hon DSc 1934; Hon DCL Durham 1912.

21 March 1858
7 February 1935


Born 21 March 1858 the son of Fleet-Surgeon John Thomson, MD, RN, he was educated at the Edinburgh Collegiate School and at Edinburgh University. He served for several years as demonstrator of anatomy at the University, being appointed junior demonstrator in 1880, and acting as senior demonstrator under Sir William Turner until 1885, when he became lecturer on human anatomy at the University of Oxford. The lectureship was attached to Dr Lee's foundation at Christ Church, and was converted into a professorship in 1893. In this capacity he was a member of the Hebdomadal board and the general board of the Faculties. He represented the University on the General Medical Council, 1904-29, and unofficially fulfilled the duty of dean of the Faculty of Physic for many years in the University. In 1907 the subject of physical anthropology, which had interested him for some years, was converted into a regular course of study and the University diploma in anthropology was instituted. Eighteen years later, and largely due to his efforts, fully equipped classrooms and a museum of anthropology were established as an addition to the anatomical department. He was also keenly interested in the development of the Oxford ophthalmological department under R W Doyne, and in 1928 he gave the Doyne memorial lecture.

He was also interested in various objects outside the University. He lectured for some years to the students of the Royal College of Art at South Kensington and from December 1900 to May 1934 he was professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy, Burlington House. He was himself a skilled watercolour artist and exhibited at the Royal Academy; in 1922 he was president of the Oxford Art Society. He was, too, a Ruskin trustee in the University of Oxford, and in that position did much to foster the teaching of art and to increase the interest taken in the subject. He was president of the Anatomical Society in 1906-08. He married in 1888 Mary, daughter of Norman Macbeth, RSA, who survived him with two daughters. He died at 163 Woodstock Road, Oxford on 7 February 1935, and was buried in Wolvercote cemetery, after a funeral service in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

Arthur Thomson did much for the Oxford Medical School. He found it almost moribund, without any systematized teaching in anatomy and physiology and with no teaching at all in pathology, medicine, or surgery. He left it with well appointed laboratories, a highly skilled professorial staff, and numerous students. The credit was not wholly his, for a beginning had already been made before his arrival from Edinburgh, but his energy, his tact, and his manifest honesty of purpose accelerated the progress which had to be made against the natural opposition to science in an intensely conservative University. Versatile to a marked degree, Arthur Thomson created no school of anatomy amongst his pupils, and as a teacher was more at home in directing attention to the form rather than to the structure of the human body. As a man he was charming and hospitable, a good speaker, a fair-minded opponent, an excellent mimic, and a good blackboard artist, apart from his hobby of water-colour sketching. The high position which he held in the hearts of his students was shown by their large attendance at a farewell banquet, which was given him when he resigned the chair of anatomy to become emeritus professor.

A handbook of anatomy for art students. Oxford, 1896; 2nd edition, 1899; 3rd, 1906; 4th, 1915; 5th, 1930.
The anatomy of the human eye. Oxford, 1912.
The ancient races of the Thebaid from the earliest times to the Mohammedan conquest, with D Randall Maclver. Oxford, 1905.
The riddle of the pecten, with suggestions as to its use, Doyne memorial lecture, 1928. Trans Ophthal Soc UK 1928, 48, 293.
His bibliography in the Journal of Anatomy lists 43 publications from 1883 to 1929.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 8 February 1935, p 16a and b, and 9 February, p 14b; Lancet, 1935, 1, 405, with portrait; Brit med J 1935, 1, 334; J Anat 1935, 69, 293-302, with portrait and bibliography; the portraits are wholly unlike; information given by the secretary of the Royal Academy; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England