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Thomson, Sir (Arthur) Landsboroughlocked

  • David E. Evans

Thomson, Sir (Arthur) Landsborough (1890–1977), ornithologist and medical administrator, was born on 8 October 1890 at 30 Royal Circus, Edinburgh, the oldest of the three sons and a daughter born to (John) Arthur Thomson (1861–1933) and his wife, Margaret Robertson Stewart. His father, later regius professor of natural history at Aberdeen University (1899–1930), played a leading role in promulgating the new biological thinking engendered by Darwin's concept of evolution and in promoting ornithology as a science rather than a hobby.

Landsborough, the great-grandparental name by which he became known, was educated at Edinburgh's Royal High School, Aberdeen grammar school, and Aberdeen University. Doubtless inspired by parental example, his first publication was a note in British Birds when he was only seventeen. He later cited as an 'undergraduate indiscretion' his publication of British Birds and their Nests (1910), but his bird-ringing scheme was Britain's first, inspired by a fortnight spent studying pioneer work in East Prussia, at Rossitten on the Baltic. After the war it merged with H. F. Witherby's system to become the nationally accepted scheme. Still aged only twenty, Thomson was elected to the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU).

Graduating MA in 1911, but keen to broaden his scientific experience, Thomson studied in Heidelberg and Vienna, returning in August 1914 to serve the entire war in France with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His administrative flair was evident, and in the final stages of war he was transferred to staff duties, ending his service as assistant quartermaster-general at general headquarters, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was appointed military OBE in 1919 and completed his DSc thesis—which had been interrupted by the hostilities—in 1920. In the same year, on 13 July, he married Mary Moir Trail (b. 1890/91), daughter of James Trail, a former professor of botany at Aberdeen. Thomson's wife assisted his work in many ways before she died in 1969. They had no children.

Briefly appointed to the Treasury on demobilization in 1919, Thomson was soon transferred, effectively as second in command, to the new Medical Research Council (MRC), in London, where he remained until retirement in 1957. In that time staff numbers grew from five to 130, with sixty research units in British universities and teaching hospitals. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the MRC established public health laboratories in case of bacteriological warfare, but they became so vital in the fight against everyday infections that they were subsequently transferred, as efficient working units, to the National Health Service, overseen by an advisory board chaired by Thomson. Appointed CB in 1933, he was knighted in 1953 for his services to the MRC. In retirement he wrote a record of its work in his two-volume Half a Century of Medical Research (1973–5) which, typically of Thomson, considered not only the development of scientific knowledge, but also its integration into the machinery of government.

Thomson was equally influential in ornithology and nature conservation, building on his father's work by setting new standards of attainment in both the status and the performance of ornithology, and the administrative skills of its practitioners. He published Problems of Bird Migration (1926), Birds: an Introduction to Ornithology (1927), and Bird Migration: a Short Account (1936), as well as many papers, and the article on migration in the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929). At the age of sixty-six, greatly assisted by his wife, he began work on the monumental and important A New Dictionary of Birds (1964), for which he was editor and major contributor of forty sections.

Thomson's practical involvement in bird and conservation bodies was prodigious: chairman of the British Ornithologists' Club (1938–43) and the British Trust for Ornithology (1941–6); president of the BOU (1948–55), of the eleventh International Ornithological Congress at Basel (1954) and of the Zoological Society of London (1954–60); chairman of the Wildfowl Trust's scientific advisory committee (1953–66), of the Home Office advisory committee on the protection of birds (1954–69), of the Council for Nature (1964–9), and of the trustees of the Natural History Museum (1967–9). He served many more spells with many more organizations as council or committee member, held honorary membership of ornithological bodies in France, Germany, and North America, and was on the committee of inquiry into the Serengeti National Park (1957–61). He received the Bernard Tucker medal of the British Trust for Ornithology (1957), the BOU's Godman-Salvin medal (1959), the Royal Society's Buchanan medal (1962), and honorary LLDs from the universities of Aberdeen (1956) and Birmingham (1974).

Thomson found time and inclination for yet more interests, including travel—his work with the MRC took him to the Gambia and confirmed his preference for the tropics—and mountaineering, which he called hill climbing. In recognition of his sixty years of passion for hills, he was elected to the Alpine Club in 1961.

Thanks to Thomson's immense capacity for work, every office was conscientiously discharged. His vast experience in interrelated fields provided a wealth of knowledge, which he sought to share further by encouraging closer ties among different organizations. His influence certainly brought about greater mutual understanding. He did not complicate administrative procedures by mistaking means for ends; every case was tackled on its own merits, not on the basis of precedent. For many his engaging charm, wise counsel, and readiness with practical help, supported by his quiet humour, integrity, and generous nature, made him 'a guide, philosopher and friend of unfailing reliability' (Elliott, 68). He had the ability to translate scientific policy into administrative practice and thereby played a vital role both in medical research and in the work of numerous environmental bodies. Both the MRC and the worlds of ornithology and nature conservation will bear the mark of his influence for many years to come. He died on 9 June 1977 in Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, leaving his autobiography in manuscript form.


  • H. Elliott, The Ibis, 120 (1978), 68–72
  • E. M. Nicholson, ‘Sir Arthur Landsborough Thomson’, British Birds, 70 (1977), 384–7
  • H. Himsworth, ‘Sir Landsborough Thomson’, Nature, 268 (1977), 471–2
  • K. Williamson, ‘Sir Arthur Landsborough Thomson’, Bird Study, 24 (1977), 202–3
  • S. Zuckerman, ‘Sir Landsborough Thomson’, Journal of Zoology, 188 (1979), 1–4
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.


  • Scottish Ornithologists Club, Edinburgh, autobiography, papers
  • TNA: PRO, personal administrative corresp.
  • CUL, corresp. with Sir Peter Markham Scott
  • Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Sir Julian Huxley
  • Wellcome L., letters to Sir Edward Mellanby
  • Wellcome L., corresp. with Sir Graham Selby Wilson


  • D. C. Seel, photograph, 1970, repro. in Zuckerman, ‘Sir Landsborough Thomson’, facing p. 1
  • studio of Bassano, photograph, repro. in Nicholson, ‘Sir Arthur Landsborough Thomson’, 385
  • Wallace Heaton Ltd, photograph, repro. in Elliott, ‘Sir Arthur Landsborough Thomson’, 72
  • photograph, repro. in Williamson, ‘Sir Arthur Landsborough Thomson’, facing p. 202

Wealth at Death

£78,839: probate, 6 Sept 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)