Keith Thomson

Emeritus Fellow

Elected 1998, Professorial Fellow; Emeritus Fellow 2003
Director, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, 1998-2003; Present position:  Senior Research Fellow (2003-2012) and Executive Officer (2012 to present), American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

BSc Birmingham, MA PhD Harvard, MA Oxford

Keith Thomson ( graduated from the University of Birmingham in 1960 and then moved to Harvard University taking a Ph.D. in Biology (1963). His dissertation was on the evolution of air-breathing at the transition between fishes and the first land animals. He continued to study both fossil and living fishes when he returned to England as NATO post-doctoral fellow at University College London (1963-1965). Finding no positions available in Britain he returned to the United States and the faculty of the Biology Department at Yale University, where he was also appointed curator of fishes in the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Over the next 22 years he became successively Professor of Biology, Director of the Peabody Museum, and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

At Yale he continued studies of ancient fishes and that inevitably drew him both to the “living fossil” lungfishes and the extraordinary living coelacanth. In 1966 he obtained for study the first fresh specimen of the coelacanth from the Comoro Islands (Living Fossil, Norton, 1991). His overall goal was to understand fossils in the same physiological, biomechanical, and ecological terms as we study living animals. In the process he published more than 200 papers on subjects ranging from the evolution of cell size and DNA content in lungfish, and intracranial mechanics in the coelacanth and its fossil relatives, to the origin of the tetrapod middle ear and the body shape and swimming mechanics of sharks. From an early interest in embryology, it was but a short step also to what is now called (rather unhappily) “evo-devo,” or the study of the roles that developmental processes play in evolution, and to writing Morphogenesis and Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1988). As an evolutionary biologist he naturally became interested in Charles Darwin and that led to a broader interest in the history of science (for example HMS Beagle, the Story of Darwin’s Ship, Norton, 1995)

In 1987 he moved to Philadelphia as President and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences where he stayed for 8 years before “retiring” as University Distinguished Scientist in Residence at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he taught both biology and history of science.  In 1998 he was elected to be the first director (in modern times) of the Oxford University Museum, Professor of natural History, and a Fellow of Kellogg College. After retiring in 2003 he returned to Philadelphia to write, based at the American Philosophical Society, somewhat surprisingly then becoming its CEO.

His recent books include: The Watch on the Heath (HarperCollins, published in the USA as Before Darwin by Yale University Press) and Fossils: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), both in 2005; The Legacy of the Mastodon (Yale University Press, 2008); A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History (University of North Carolina Press for the Thomas Jefferson  Foundation, 2008); The Young Charles Darwin (Yale University Press, 2009); Jefferson’s Shadow: the Story of his Science (Yale University Press, 2012); and Private Doubt, Public Dilemma: Jefferson, Darwin, Science and Religion (Yale University Press, May 2015).

Keith Thomson for thirty years had a regular column Marginalia in the magazine American Scientist.  He reviews for scientific journals and the Times Higher Educational Supplement.  He and his wife, the artist Linda Price Thomson, moved back to the United States in 2005.