It is well known that the famous D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was a member of PSNS. However, an unexpected and befitting footnote to Matthew Jarron’s “Curious Minds” talk was the discovery that a former member of our Society, now in her nineties, Mrs Ada Mathieson, had been a student of D’Arcy Thompson’s in St Andrews.
Mrs Mathieson graduated in medicine in the late 1940s. She very kindly agreed to speak to PSNS about her memories of Professor Thompson, although her contact with him was fleeting and a long time ago.
In his talk, Matthew told us that D’Arcy had persuaded the university authorities that medical students should study biology in their first year, thus firmly establishing the subjects of botany and zoology in the curriculum and, consequently, providing him with a secure job. Mrs Mathieson told us that some medical students bridled at the imposition as they could not see the relevance of these subjects, particularly botany, to medical studies. They wanted to get on with clinical work. Mrs Mathieson, herself, was no fan of zoology and it was the only exam she ever failed, although she is quick to point out that this is no reflection on D’Arcy’s teaching.
Mrs Mathieson said D’Arcy was a weel kent face in South Street, where he lived, and she often saw him out and about with his parrot on his shoulder. He had a “parrot coat” for these perambulations; its collar was well pecked, chewed and frayed. He cut a lonely figure as an old man as he strode the streets of nineteen-forties St Andrews.
D’Arcy’s lectures did not inspire much enthusiasm in our informant who said his classes were pretty dull. The medical students did not find him an engaging communicator. They felt he was remote, that his head was in the clouds. They were quite unaware that he was one of the greatest polymaths of his era.
The professor was in the habit of inviting favoured students to his home on Sundays for afternoon tea. Apparently, these were fairly excruciating affairs where conversation did not flow easily. Mrs Mathieson was never invited. Perhaps she wasn’t a favoured student or perhaps she had a narrow escape. One day, as she was leaving a lecture, she felt a hand grip her shoulder, thinking the hand belonged to a classmate, she shrugged it off. When she turned around, she realised the hand had been D’Arcy’s. Had he been about to invite her to afternoon tea? We’ll never know. But we can say, with certainty, that she was once touched by the hand of greatness.