by Lou Mancinelli
While Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the Declaration of Independence are a staple of American history, the fact that he was a serious scientist who made original contributions to natural science (e.g., he was the first to work out what an American mastodon looked like) is much less known.
Former president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANS), dean of Yale University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and first director of Oxford University Museum, Keith Stewart Thomson, Ph.D., spoke at Morris Arboretum Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 4, about Thomas Jefferson the natural scientist, and Jefferson’s philosophy on the natural world.
The talk was part of the museum’s “Connection Beyond Our Gardens – Talks on People, Plants and Place,” an ongoing series of discussions designed to connect people more with the natural world.
“The way in which [Jefferson] viewed science is particularly modern,” said Dr. Thomson, now executive director of the American Philosophical Society and a 26-year Hill resident, during a recent interview before the engagement.
Jefferson engaged in, among other things, studying the climate, fossils, geology and anthropology. He read extensively, and a large part of his philosophy was inspired by men like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon during the Age of Enlightenment, according to Dr. Thomson.
Jefferson believed the best form of government operated in small units, like villages, towns and counties, as opposed to large entities like cities, which he disliked and considered unhealthy as a way for people to live.
Man as a self-sufficient farmer encompassed Jefferson’s vision of happiness and satisfaction. Each day he traveled the expanse of Monticello on his horse. Beginning in July, 1776, he started to collect daily climate data. He was looking for global warming, which makes him one of America’s early pioneers in climatology.
Jefferson’s data collection began the same month he was involved in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His scientific explorations and studies continued throughout his presidential terms. At Monticello he experimented with more than 33 kinds of tea.
“I like to say historians of science ignore Jefferson the scientist, and historians of Jefferson ignore Jefferson the scientist,” said Dr. Thomson. “There has been a tendency to dismiss Jefferson as an amateur and tinkerer.”
But, according to Dr. Thomson, that is far from the case. To him, Jefferson is an example of an individual who formed his ideas about organizing government and society based on his observations of the natural world and scientific experimentation.
Throughout his career Dr. Thomson has written numerous articles and books about, among other things, living fossils and Charles Darwin as a young man. Last November, he published the book “Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of His Science” (Yale University Press). For almost 35 years Dr. Thomson worked as a scientist and professor before he shifted the focus of his career to writing.
In 1966 he became the first person to unearth for study the first fresh specimen of the coelacanth, a lungfish, from the Comoro Islands, off the southeast coast of Africa. This discovery made in his early career studying ancient fishes was spawned by chance. During a summer internship while an undergrad in England, where he was raised, Dr. Thomson, then Mr. Thomson, was assigned to study an old African fish.
This led to his interest in further studying living fossils. Dr. Thomson ultimately studied the points in time when and how fish began to prepare for their eventual evolution from water to land. He wanted to understand how a rather complicated series of events and evolutionary change could happen so fast in geological time. The period lasted about 20 million years, he said.
“I look at [fossils] as living animals that unfortunately can’t tell us as much as we would like,” said Dr. Thomson.
Dr. Thomson,75, was raised in England and first came to America in the early 1960s to earn his Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. He joined the Yale faculty in 1965 and rose to dean before leaving in 1987. That same year he moved to Philadelphia to become president of the ANS, and since then has lived in Chestnut Hill with his wife, Linda Price Thomson, an artist. When The Local talked with Dr. Thomson for this interview he was building a dollhouse for his grandchildren for Christmas.
“Whether it was science or political science or farming,” said Thomson, “Jefferson was always looking for truths to base his philosophy … You need truths whether you are a scientist, a father or a political animal.”
More information about Morris’ “Talks on People, Plants and Place” series at www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum/index.html.