Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Alexander Morrison Thomson (1841–1871)

by Michael Hoare

This article was published:

Alexander Morrison Thomson (1841-1871), geologist and chemist, was born on 4 February 1841 at Bartholomew Square, London, son of William Dalrymple Thomson, bookseller, and his wife Mary Ann, née Ranger. He received an elementary education in London before moving in 1853 to Aberdeen, where in 1857-59 he attended classes in arts at King's College and University, Aberdeen, spending much time on geological excursions with his schoolfriend James Campbell Brown. After returning to London, Thomson worked for Winsor and Newton, colourmakers, and in 1859-61 attended night classes at King's College, University of London (B.A., 1862; B.Sc., 1864; D.Sc. 1866), gaining the prize for natural philosophy in 1860. In 1862 he passed the Civil Service Commission examination and worked briefly with the boards of Inland Revenue and Customs. Next year he won an exhibition of £50 in chemistry and natural philosophy. In 1865-66 he worked at the Royal School of Mines.

In 1866 Thomson was appointed reader in geology and assistant in the chemical laboratory of Professor John Smith at the University of Sydney. He arrived in Sydney in December bringing with him new instruments and specimens. Next March he began courses in geology, physical geography and mineralogy; his lecture notes show his thoroughness and his zeal in keeping up his reading. He quickly gained the confidence and co-operation of colleagues such as Smith and Rev. W. B. Clarke who became a close friend. After acting as examiner in scientific subjects in 1869 he was appointed professor of geology in November at a salary of £450 'together with the fees'. He also lectured in physical and natural science at Sydney Grammar School.

Thomson's 'integrity of purpose … singleness of mind and readiness to oblige at all times and by all means' won him many friends among the divided scientific community of New South Wales. Elected to the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1867, he served on its council in 1870-71. At the Australian Museum, where he was a trustee from 1869-71, he did useful work in cataloguing and assaying. He worked vigorously in the field. In December 1868 at Marulan he prepared a paper on the geology of the Goulburn region which he read in August 1869 to the Royal Society. That year he published in Sydney his Guide to Mineral Explorers, in Distinguishing Minerals, Ores & Gems, and in September with Gerard Krefft he explored the Wellington Valley caves. In May 1870 their report included Thomson's detailed summary of the geology, in which he attacked Samuel Stutchbury's ideas on the theory of limestone cave formations. He also geologized at Molong and Boree, visited the diamond washings on the Cudgegong River near Mudgee, and made surveys of other centres in the west.

Thomson was forced to convalesce with chronic rheumatism early in 1871. Constantly in pain, by August he was confined indoors, able only to catalogue specimens brought from the university and write to his many geological co-workers. Aged 30, he died on 16 November 1871 in his residence in Queen's Street, Newtown, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife Lydia Martha, née Barnes, and by a son and daughter. His personal estate was valued for probate at £850.

His early death shocked Thomson's scientific colleagues and friends, and they raised money to repatriate his family to Britain. Had he lived longer he undoubtedly would have made a notable contribution to Australian chemistry, mineralogy and geology. His successor Archibald Liversidge built on the foundations which he and Smith had laid.

Select Bibliography

  • D. F. Branagan (ed), Rocks, Fossils, Profs (Syd, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-71, 4, 1182
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Nov, 1 Dec 1871
  • Town and Country Journal, 2 Dec 1871
  • A. M. Thomson notebooks (University of Sydney Library)
  • Thomson letters in W. B. Clarke papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Senate minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Michael Hoare, 'Thomson, Alexander Morrison (1841–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 February, 1841
London, Middlesex, England


16 November, 1871 (aged 30)
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.