Blaschka model, The larval stage of starfish (Asteria rubens), c.1880s. Courtesy: D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services

On Nethergate in Dundee sits the University’s 12 storey Tower Building. First opened in 1961, it’s a fashionably beige relic of a bygone era. We are in the foyer – there are many things in cabinets, many pictures on the walls. The Museums’ Curator, Matthew Jarron, has journeyed from his far-flung office in the art school to escort us to the Carnelley Building immediately behind the Tower. We stop at reception and pick up a security badge before being drawn down to the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. Our Tuesday visit is special. Public access is restricted to the second Saturday of every month, Good Friday and Fridays during the summer. This testifies to the museum’s use for teaching, an activity physically separated from ‘research’ allied with the shiny new School of Life Sciences on the outskirts of campus.

Skeletons, fossils and preserved specimens of many divisions of animal life have been plucked from their ecologies to join the collection, taking on new characters as objects in vitrines lining the white, windowless space. Remakes are also on display. Blaschka’s fine glass models preserve the intricate aesthetic of marine invertebrates. These sculptures — Jellyfish, worms, larva — seem more real than the bodies trapped in glass whose original colour and (potentially) shape have been ruined by alcohol. Both specimen and jar are the museum piece. With a sound seal the contents — a parasite from a narwhal — are pickled forever, a slight gap and the 80% proof liquid progressively vanishes.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, appointed as professor of Biology in 1884, formed this collection as a teaching aid. Specimens were acquired from expeditions with his ship ‘The Goldseeker’, further trips by him and his students, and from Dundee’s whalers and other polar explorers. The collection was enriched by swapping duplicates with museums around the world. D’Arcy’s vast original museum was knocked down to build the 12 storey Tower. There is no comprehensive record of what it held. Some pieces were likely destroyed, others donated to what became The Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum in Edinburgh. Opening in 2008, this room houses what survives.

Biological Sciences are taught here, the study of ‘life in all its forms looking at molecular detail regulation and function from the microscopic to organismal scale.’ [1] But this museum has a broader reach — accessed by, amongst others, aspiring engineers, designers and artists. The diverse interests of visitors reverberate from D’Arcy’s seminal work, On Growth and Form (1917). This book ‘pioneered the science of biomathematics [influencing] art, architecture, anthropology, geography and cybernetics’. [2]

Henry Moore got hold of a copy while studying in Leeds in 1919. Art critic Herbert Read reviewed the 1942 second edition and it’s credited with informing a breadth of art work from figures including Barbara Hepworth, Jackson Pollock, Richard Hamilton, Naum Gabo, Joseph Cornell and László Moholy-Nagy. Perhaps artists ignore the scientific substance, divining inspiration from the book’s profuse and beautiful illustrations. [3] Some, including Henry, grasped the content: the extensive investigations into how physical forces, and their related mathematical laws, shape an organism’s form.

Darcy Book Page
Extract from page 749 of D’Arcy’s On Growth and Form, 1917, showing a comparison of related forms as part of his theory of transformations. Cambridge University Press

Henry’s Transformation Drawings made between 1930-35 sought to reveal ‘principles of form and rhythm from the study of natural objects’ [4]. His ‘Studies of Bones’ reinterpreting the method detailed in D’Arcy’s chapter ‘The Theory of Transformations’ where organisms are reshaped to show how they map onto others with a parallel structure that were subject to different forces as they grew. Henry’s drawings express his aesthetic direction, as materialised in many celebrated works including ‘Reclining Woman: Elbow’ (1981) that rests in Leeds city centre. The ‘primitivism’ of this sculpture was recently satirised by the artist Joseph Buckley in a prophetic vision of a post-Brexit society:

The Poor had dug a pit,

pulled the sculpture from the earth,

noticed it looked like they,

and read the sculpture’s curves and bumps,

as proof of their worth and goodness [5]

Leeds City Art Gallery entrance and the Henry Moore Sculpture ‘Reclining Woman: Elbow’ (1981), The Headrow, Leeds. Courtesy: User Rept0n1x at Wikimedia Commons

A sense of purity in naturally occurring forms is evident in Henry and Barbara’s work. Modernist art had been characterised as ‘aesthetically nihilistic’ [6] whereas the association with D’Arcy aligns them with progressive currents in science. D’Arcy’s ‘visual analogies between organic and inorganic forms’ [7] — the skeletons of large animals resembling cantilever bridges — were made real in sculpture. Naum Gabo drew from the book and optimum engineering, in search of ‘perfect structures… the lightest complex geometrical forms that could deliver stability.’ [8] Arrangements then filtered into the seminal computer-based films of James Whitney.

D’Arcy rebuffed some of the mysticism garnered by his work. The equiangular spiral of the nautilus pompilius shell informs the golden section, the secret to beauty. But ‘doing the maths’ reveals the practical reasoning behind the shape in relation to the organism’s growth. D’Arcy was a lover of classics, a field naturalist with a specialist understanding of plants and animals, a polymath, and a passionate believer ‘in giving students as great a breadth of knowledge as possible’. [9] Discoveries are found in the borderlands between subjects, a golden interweaving link or commune vinculum, that connects the sciences in the depth of their interpretation. [10]

Huia Birds (Heteralocha acutirostris), mounted for D’Arcy by Gerrards of London, 1898. One of the rarest specimens in the museum. Courtesy: D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services

As D’Arcy indicates, facts are pointless unless they illustrate greater principles. The collection contains many rare specimens, such as the extinct Huia bird, the now near threatened Narwhal. [11] Taxonomy reveals loss. D’Arcy own concern led him to the Bering Sea to gather statistics about the breeding population of seals, informing a first treaty to limit hunting. However, capacity to gather and demarcate species correlates with their mass extinction. We can’t claim it’s causal, but the processes that enable collections to happen — access, travel, achievement, status — play their role. This modest but precious museum can teach us many things. Not least, to cherish the depth and beauty of what may soon be gone.

Anna McLauchlan is a teacher and learner working across environmental studies, geography, art and somatic practices.


[1] Biological Sciences, University of Dundee, 2019.

[2] Mathew Jarron, 2017, “Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower” – On Growth and Form in Context. In Matthew Jarron (ed) Growing and Forming: Essays on D’Arcy Thompson. Publication of the Abertay Historical Society. 58. pp.3-40, at p.3.

[3] Martin Hammer, 2014, The Growth and Form of Artistic Responses to D’Arcy Thompson. In, Henry Moore Institute, Essays on Sculpture 70. D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. pp.14-30.

[4] Edward Juler, 2013, A Bridge between Science and Art? The Artistic Reception of On Growth and Form in Interwar Britain, c. 1930-42”. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 38:1, pp.35-48, at p.43. See also Edward Juler’s essay for Tate Life Forms: Henry Moore, Morphology and Biologism in the Interwar Years.

[5] Joseph S. Buckley, 2017, Story from the sculpture city, Brotherhood Tapestry.

[6] Juler, A Bridge between Science and Art? at p.37. This comment was derived from Dugald Sutherland MacColl, 1934, Visual and Vocal Art. The Listener, 9 May, pp.799-800.

[7] Jarron, 2017, “Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower” at p.21.

[8] Martin Kemp and Lisa Le Feuvre, 2014, In Conversation. In, Henry Moore Institute, Essays on Sculpture 70. D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. pp.31-44. at p.38; see also Juler, A Bridge between Science and Art?

[9] Jarron, 2017, “Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower”, at p.6.

[10] Ibid, at p.7. Derived from an address delivered by D’Arcy at the opening of session 1903-4, quoted in The College December 1903, p.9.

[11] Cathy Cauldwell, 2017, “The Treasures of Animate Nature” – the Development of D’Arcy Thompson’s Zoology Museum. In Matthew Jarron (ed) Growing and Forming: Essays on D’Arcy Thompson. Publication of the Abertay Historical Society. 58. pp.57-79, at p.72.

This text was informed by the excellent introduction to D’Arcy Thompson’s work found in Matthew Jarron, Ian Kennedy, Elliot Balson, Helen Robinson, Letty Wilson and Norrie Millar, 2017, Transformation: The D’Arcy Thompson Comic. Dundee; UniVerse.

A comprehensive overview can be found in by Matthew Jarron and Cathy Caudwell, 2015, D’Arcy Thompson and his Zoology Museum. Dundee; The University of Dundee and the Collect of Life Sciences.


Thanks to: Matthew Jarron for generously giving his time during our visit to the museum and for fact checking; Daisy Lafarge for helping me discover the Museum and editorial support; Kirsteen Macdonald for commenting on an earlier copy of this text; and, Margaret McLauchlan for coming with me and discussing our experience.