William Thompson, Naturalist

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Thompson, William, a naturalist, was born in Belfast, 2nd December 1805. [His father was a linen merchant, and at an early age he was himself apprenticed to the business.] His attention appears to have been turned to natural history by a copy of Bewick's Birds, after reading which most of his spare time was devoted to that study. For a while he carried on business on his own account; but want of success induced him to give it up, and thenceforward science was not only the pleasure but the occupation of his life. In 1826 he joined the Natural History Society of Belfast; in 1833 he was chosen one of the Vice-Presidents, and in 1843, on the retirement of Dr. Drummond, was elected President. His systematic observations appear to have dated from 1832, from which time he continued steadily recording the occurrence of species previously unknown as Irish, and gradually accumulating the materials for an account of the fauna of Ireland.

As his labours became known, correspondents in every part of the country sprang up, and information of the most varied character poured in upon him. He occasionally contributed papers to English societies, and an annual visit to London became one of the delights of his life. In 1840 he laid before the British Association a report on the vertebrata of Ireland. In 1841 he joined his friend Edward Forbes in a naturalist cruise in H.M.S. Beacon in the Ægean Sea. The first three volumes of his Natural History of Ireland, comprising the Birds, were published between 1849 and 1851. The work was most favourably received, and has since been regarded as a standard authority on the subject. He died suddenly in London, 17th February 1852, aged 46, and was interred at Belfast. "Mr. Thompson differed from the generality of naturalists in the wide range of his research.

He gave attention not only to the long series of vertebrate and invertebrate animals (excepting insecta and infusoria) but also to the vegetable kingdom in all its various forms." He made several contributions to the Phycologia Britannica of Dr. W. H. Harvey. By a provision in his will, his unpublished papers were left in the hands of his friends Robert Patterson and James R. Garrett, the former of whom edited the fourth volume of his Natural History of Ireland, published in 1856. The book is prefaced by a memoir, from which this notice is taken: it concludes with a catalogue of Mr. Thompson's publications, numbering seventy-three, and a list of ten species to which his name has been given.

Sources

323c. Thompson, William: The Natural History of Ireland. 4 vols. London, 1849-'51.

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