Charles Wyville Thomson (1830-1882)

Charles Wyville Thomson was born on 5 March 1830. He attended school in Edinburgh before gaining a degree in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After teaching botany at the University of Aberdeen he became a professor at Queen’s University of Belfast before going back to Edinburgh. In 1872 he was appointed chief scientist of HMS Challenger. It was Thomson and William Carpenter that sparked the interest in the sea floor.

Azoic Theory

For a short while, a man called Edward Forbes occupied the chair of Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. It was Forbes that came up with the idea that in the ocean, nothing below 300 fathoms could exist. This was called the ‘azoic theory’ and being an influential man, the theory was accepted. However, Wyville Thomson was adamant this theory was incorrect and was determined to prove him wrong. So he and his friend, William Carpenter (who was then the vice-president of the Royal Society) persuaded the Admiralty that Thomson could use HMS Lightening for a short while in 1868 to investigate the ocean around the Faeroes and Shetland Islands. It was here that Thomson discovered life at 600 fathoms. Due to this success, when Thomson became the Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh, he and Carpenter persuaded both the Admiralty and the Royal Society that a three and a half year voyage of the oceans was a good idea. Funding for the voyage was approved and by December 1872 they were ready to go!

After all his hard work, Thomson received a knighthood though sadly died March 10th 1882, before the first volume of reports were finished.

Due to his link with Edinburgh, Thomson proposed some duplicates of the Challenger collections to go to National Museums Scotland (then the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art).


Corfield, Richard, The Silent Landscape: In the Wake of HMS Challenger 1872-1876, (London, 2004).

Charles Wyville Thomson