Sir William Thomson, Kt., M.A., B.Sc., LL.D.

by J M Watt

With the passing of Sir William Thomson on August 6, 1947, a Fellow of the Society since 1882, many of us in South Africa and elsewhere have lost a trusted friend and one held universally in high regard.

He was born on December 31, 1856, at Kirkton of Mailler, in Perthshire, and received his schooling at Perth Academy. His University studies were prosecuted at Edinburgh, where he graduated M.A., B.Sc. At this time, 1878, he had leanings towards a medical career, but abandoned the idea to accept a post as Assistant to the Professor of Mathematics in the University of Edinburgh, which he held until 1883.

In this year he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Victoria College, Stellenbosch (now the University of Stellenbosch), a post which he held with distinction until 1895. During this period, among his students were Dr D F Malan (Premier of the Union of South Africa), Field-Marshal J C Smuts, the late General J B M Hertzog and the late Senator F S Malan. Incidentally, among his students at Edinburgh was J M Barrie. Throughout his tenure of the Chair of Mathematics at Stellenbosch he was a member of the Council of the University of the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1895 Thomson forsook the academic side of University life for the administrative side, and was appointed Registrar of the University of the Cape of Good Hope, and followed on in 1918 as Registrar of the University of South Africa until his retirement in 1922. Throughout this long period on the administrative side of University Education in the Cape Colony, and later in the Union of South Africa, Thomson's name became almost a household word. There are many of us in South Africa who have his signature on our matriculation and graduation certificates. Indeed, he once told the writer of an amusing experience during the 1899-1902 War in South Africa. In the course of his duties he was visiting a small school in a tent in one of the camps established by the military authorities for Boer women and children. On entering the tent, the first thing that faced him was his signature on a matriculation certificate pinned to a tent pole. The youthful teacher assured him that this was her authority to act in that capacity.

Shortly after his retirement Thomson was recalled to University life, this time to become Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand at Johannesburg. This post he held with great distinction from 1924 to 1928. While here, both he and his wife (a daughter of F J van der Riet, a one-time magistrate of Simonstown) endeared themselves to the University Staff and students. Sir William has left his mark on the administrative system of the University, and he and his wife on its social structure. Much of the garden of the Principal's residence was laid out and designed by her, and a good number of fine trees remain as a monument to them.

We mourn the passing of a distinguished educationist and a fine and lovable character.

William Thomson was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 March 1882, his proposers being George Chrystal, Peter Guthrie Tait, Alexander Crum Brown, Sir William Turner. This obituary, written by J M Watt, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1948/1949, pages 48-49.