William Thompson (naturalist)

William Thompson (naturalist)

William Thompson (December 2, 1805February 17, 1852) was an Irish naturalist celebrated for his founding studies of the Natural History of Ireland. He was especially interested in ornithology and marine biology.

Born in Belfast, Ireland, the eldest son of a linen merchant, Thompson attended the newly formed Royal Belfast Academical Institution in the increasingly prosperous and vital maritime city of Belfast. Founded by, amongst others, John Templeton a close friend of fellow-botanist Sir Joseph Banks, the school had a strong natural history section and was to produce a cohort of prominent naturalists. Thompson's first scientific paper "The Birds of the Copeland Islands" (two islands just off the coast of Belfast Lough) was published in 1827 shortly after his joining the then prominent and influential Belfast Natural History Society.

Seemingly reliant on family resources and without academic or institutional connections, he gave himself over entirely to natural history. Thompson contributed the most up-to-date information on the birds of Ireland to Selby’s "The Magazine of Zoology and Botany", "The Annals of Natural History", "The Magazine of Natural History", and the "Annals and Magazine of Natural History". The first true list of Ireland's birds was prepared for the 1840 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Glasgow. Other work (mostly though not entirely on birds) was published in the "Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London" and the "London and Edinburgh Philosophical Journal". These papers formed the basis of his seminal work—"The Natural History of Ireland"—published in three volumes between 1849 and 1851.


William Thompson investigated all areas of the natural history of his local area. His observations, later gathered into the "Natural History of Ireland" are remniscent of Gilbert Whites "The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne" (1784). Most of the work was on birds on which he published notes on notes on distribution, breeding, eggs, habitat, song, plumage, behaviour, nesting and food. These were much used by contemporary and later authors for instance Francis Orpen Morris [http://www.birdcheck.co.uk/main/previewpages/previewpage35.htm] (behaviour, plumage).He found many rare species for instance Bonaparte's Gull and American Bittern which were added to an extensive private bird museum. Other rare birds, not obtained, for instance the Red Kite were simply recorded.

A Grand Tour, dredging, algae and some travel

In 1826 he went on a Grand Tour accompanied by a Fortwilliam Belfast shipowner George Langtry. Starting in Holland they travelled through Belgium down the Rhine to Switzerland and on to Rome and Naples. They returned via Florence, Geneva and Paris.In 1834 Thompson entered the then new field of natural history exploring distribution of marine animals in space (depth range) and in time (seasonality). He began working with Edward Forbes dredging in the Irish Sea. Other participants were Robert MacAndrew , George Barlee, John Gwyn Jeffreys and his fellow Irishmen Robert Ball, Edmund Getty and George Crawford Hyndman. In the succeeding year he travelled in France , Switzerland and Germany with Forbes.Then in 1841 he joined Forbes and Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt on the "Beacon" working in the Mediterranean and Aegean.The expedition lasted eighteen months and upwards of one hundred dredging operations at depths varying from 1 to 130 fathoms were conducted as well as on shore. In 1843 Forbes communicated to the Cork meeting of the British Association an elaborate report entitled "Mollusca and Radiata of the Aegean Sea, and on their distribution considered as bearing on Geology". This led to a focus on the depth range of algae, his main collection of which is in the Ulster Museum herbarium and consists of five large albums. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:William_Thompson_(naturalist)] These contain specimens collected by many, among them: William Thompson himself, William Henry Harvey, Moon, D. Landsborough, Robert Ball, Thomas Coulter , George Crawford Hyndman, William McCalla and many others. The 5th volume is of foreign specimens mostly collected by William Henry Harvey. His records are also reported by others such as Gifford (1853):- "Griffithsia simplicifilum" from "...Isle of Wight, in August, 1841, by Messers. R.Ball. and W. Thompson." Gifford, I. 1853. "The Marine Botanist; an Introduction to the Study of the British Sea-weeds;..." Third edition. Brighton, London.]
Dickie's "Flora of Ulster" records his frequent botanical contributions.

Correspondence, intention and death

Thompson corresponded extensively on all aspects of natural history with naturalists in both Britain and Ireland concerning his projected fourth volume, that on the remaining vertebrates and invertebrates. Of particular interest is his contact with Thomas Bell who was at the heart of the English scientific establishment.As Thompson's reputation spread, he came to be regarded as an authority and information was passed to him by interested observers all over Ireland. However his health became poor around 1847 or 1848, when he was 42, and he suffered from heart trouble from 1847. It continued to deteriorate, and, in 1852, Thompson died of a heart attack in LondonFairley, J.S. 1975. "An Irish Beast Book. A Natural History of Ireland's Furred Wildlife." Blackstaff Press, Belfast] where he had been tended by his friends William Yarrell, author of "British Birds", Edward Forbes, Edwin Lankester, of the Ray Society and George Busk. His "Natural History of Ireland.", the first three volumes, all on birds, appeared in 1849, 1850 and 1851. With the exception of a continental tours in 1826 and 1834 , the Aegean voyage in 1841 (with Edward Forbes and his annual visits to London (mainly to attend meetings of the Zoological Society) and to the meetings of the British Association, Thompson had spent his entire life in the north of Ireland. He died unmarried.

What could be gleaned from Thompson's letters and his notes was edited and published by J. R. Garrett and Robert Patterson in 1856, four years after his death.


Partial List from over eighty. A complete list is found in "The Natural History of Ireland". See External Links.
*1833 On an immature specimen of the Long-tailed Manis ("Manis tetradactyla", Linn.) from Sierra Leone. "Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond" II 28.
*1834 Observations of some of native Mammalia, birds and fishes, including additions to the British fauna. List of land and freshwater Mollusca new to Ireland. "Phil. Mag. Lond. & Edin." 5: 298.
*1835 Pollan of Lough Neagh. "Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London" 1835, 77.
*1835 On the Teredo navalis and Limnoria terebrans, as at present existing in certain localities on the coasts of the British Islands. "Edinb. New Phil. J." 18: 121-130.
*1835 On some additions to the British fauna. "Proceedings of the Zoological Society London" 3: 77-84.
*1840 Note on the occurrence at various times of the bottle-nosed whale (Hyperoodon butzkoph, Lancep.) on the coast of Ireland; and its nearly simultaneous appearance on different parts of the British coast in the autumn of 1839. "Magazine of Natural History" 4, 375-381.
*1840 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Magazine of Natural History" 5, 6-14.
*1840 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Magazine of Natural History" 5: 245-257.
*with Goodsir, J. 1840 Description of Limneus involutus Harvey MS. with an account of the anatomy of the animal. "Magazine of Natural History" 5: 22-25.
*1840 Contributions towards a knowledge of the Mollusca Nudibranchia and Mollusca Tunicata of Ireland, with descriptions of apparently some new species of invertebrata. "Magazine of Natural History" 5: 84-102 Plate 2.Download at [http://www.dodoline.it/biosophia/docs/tunicata/tunicata.htm]
*1841 Catalogue of the land and freshwater Mollusca of Ireland. ""Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 6: 16-34
*1841 Catalogue of the land and freshwater Mollusca of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 6: 109-126
*1841 Catalogue of the land andfreshwater Mollusca of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 6: 194-208
*1841 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 7: 477-481
*1842 Results of deep dredging off the Mull of Galloway, by Capt. Beechey, R.N.. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 10: 21-24.
*1842 Cycostoma elegans Lam. an Irish shell. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 8: 228.
*1843 "Report on the fauna of Ireland: div. Invertebrata. Drawn up, at the request of the British Association". Rep. Meet. Br. Assoc. Advancem. Science London, 13: 245-291.
*1844 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 13: 430-440.
*1845 Additions to the fauna of Ireland, including descriptions of some apparently new species of Invertebrata. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 15: 308-322.
*1846 Notice of a bottle-nosed whale Hyperoodon butzkoph, Lancep. obtained in Belfast Bay in October, 1845. "Annals and Magazine of Natural History". 17, 150-153.
*1846 Additions to the fauna of Ireland, including species new to that of Britain; with notes on rare species. "Annals and Magazine of Natural History". 18, 310-315.
*1846 Additions to the fauna of Ireland, including a few species unrecorded in that of Britain; with the description of an apparently new Glossiphonia. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 18: 383-397.
*1847 Note on the Teredo norvegica (T. navalis, Turton, not Linn), Xylophaga dorsalis, Limnoria terebrans and Chelura terebrans, combined in destroying the submerged wood-work at the harbour of Ardrossan on the coast of Ayrshire. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 20: 157-164.
*1847 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 20: 169-176.
*1848 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 1: 62-65.
*1849 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 3: 351-357.
*1851 Additions to the fauna of Ireland. "Annals & Magazine of Natural History" 7: 501-502.
*1853 "Supplementary report on the fauna of Ireland". Report for the British Association for the Advancement of Science : 286-290.
* Also published by Boehn, London.

The Sea louse "Lepeophtheirus thompsoni" Baird, 1850 honours his name.


* [http://www.clt.astate.edu/aromero/new_page_76.htm William Thompson]



* Morton, O. 1980. Three algal collections in the Ulster Museum Herbarium. "Ir. Nat. J." 20: 33 - 37
* Ross, H.C.G. and Nash, R. 1985. The development of natural history in early nineteenth century Ireland. "From Linnaeus to Darwin: commentaries on the history of biology and geology." Society for the history of Natural History, London.

External links

* [https://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/portrait.asp?search=ss&sText=william+thompson&LinkID=mp62031&rNo=0&role=sit National Portrait Gallery]
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=LXxMzT_Vsc4C Google Books] Digitised "The Natural History of Ireland"

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