William Thompson (December 2, 1805 – February 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, 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 distribution, breeding, eggs, habitat, song, plumage, behaviour, nesting and food. These were much used by contemporary and later authors for instance Francis Orpen Morris (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. 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.” 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 London 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.
The Sea louse Lepeophtheirus thompsoni Baird, 1850 honours his name.