Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes
Sir Charles Wyville Thomson was born today, on the 5th of March, but in 1830. He will die next week! On the 10th of March, but in 1882. What a way to begin the biography of a Scottish marine biologist who doubled as a physician, geologist, natural historian, botanist, zoologist and oceanographer… not to mention professor! Arthur Conan-Doyle would have liked such an introduction. Conan-Doyle was Wyville Thomson’s student when he studied medicine in Edinburgh. As for Wyville Thomson, we're talking about the chief scientist of the Challenger expedition, the expedition that established oceanography as a discipline.
The boundaries between scientific disciplines were beginning to be drawn at the time Wyville Thomson initiated his medicine studies, and scientific practice was often multifaceted. He studied medicine in Edinburgh to later lecture on botany at the University of Aberdeen, natural history at Queen’s College Cork, mineralogy and geology at Queen’s University in Belfast, botany again at the Royal College of Science in Dublin and finally, beginning in 1870, natural history at the University of Edinburgh. By then, he was already fascinated about the study of marine invertebrates. He had been in dredging expeditions in North Scotland and the Atlantic Ocean on board of the HMS Lightning and the HMS Porcupine (1868-70). There he discovered a huge biodiversity of invertebrates to depths of 4,000 meters (2,435 fathoms). He also found that contrary to contemporary wisdom, deep-sea temperatures are not constant, pointing to the existence of an oceanic circulation. He described all of this in an inevitable book: 'The Depths of the Sea' (1873).
Edward Forbes presented the 'azoic hypothesis' (in 1843) that argued that life was not possible bellow 550m. In 'The Depths of the Sea' we can read: 'During the several cruises of H. M. ships "Lightning" and "Porcupine" in the years 1868, 1869 and 1970, 57 hauls of the dredge were taken in the Atlantic at depths beyond 500 fathoms, and sixteen at depth beyond 1,000 fathoms, and, in all cases, life was abundant. In 1869 we took two casts in depths greater than 2,000 fathoms. In both of these life was abundant; and with the deepest cast, 2,435 fathoms off the mouth of the Bay of Biscay, we took living, well-marked and characteristic examples of all the five invertebrate sub-kingdoms'. The conclusion was that there was no bathymetric limit for life. Life was thus fathomless! The subsequent Challenger expedition would, among many other things, prove this true, finding life below 5,000 meters (see John Murray’s account in Marine Scientist Monday).
Conan Doyle studied medicine in Edinburgh from 1876 to 1881, where he attended Wyville Thomson’s classes, after the latter returned from the Challenger expedition. During that period, Doyle studied practical botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, like Wyville Thomson. With graduation still pending, Doyle joined a whaling ship named 'Hope', which sailed into the Arctic in 1880 exploring Franz Josef Land. Then, but this time after graduating in 1881, he was the ship's surgeon on the SS Mayumba during a voyage to the West African coast. The rest is history (of literature).
From an academic position, it is interesting/tempting to think of the influential capacity of a professor on his/her students. Joseph Bell was Doyle's professor of surgery and he is widely recognised as the alter ego behind Doyle's most famous literary character: Sherlock Holmes. However, there was another character that led five of Doyle's science fiction novels and short histories, among them 'The Lost World' (1912). This one was a scientist, not a detective, with wide knowledge in anthropology, zoology and also a wealthy inventor. His name? Professor Challenger. Maybe this one goes for Wyville Thomson, a marine zoologist!