Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Park Thomson (1854–1941)

by W. S. Kitson

This article was published:

James Park Thomson (1854-1941), geographer and public servant, was born on 20 June 1854 and baptized on 23 July at Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland, eldest son of Lawrence Thomson, farmer, and his wife Joan, née Park. Educated at the local parish school, at the age of 18 he took up seafaring, visited the United States and South America between 1872 and 1874 and then learned the rudiments of marine engineering at Glasgow. In 1876 Thomson visited New Zealand and from 1877 spent two years working with surveyors in New South Wales. Securing an appointment in Fiji, he was registered as a land surveyor in March 1880: his work was comprehensive, thorough and accurate. In 1882 he also supervised observations of the transit of Venus; his fascination with astronomy was to continue into his retirement when he established a private observatory in Brisbane.

Leaving Fiji in 1884, Thomson travelled the South Pacific before joining the Queensland Department of Public Lands as a draftsman in 1885. From his base in Brisbane he computed the trigonometrical survey of the colony. In 1885 he founded the Queensland branch of the (Royal) Geographical Society of Australasia; he was its honorary secretary, president (1894-97) and edited its Journal. He was involved in discussions that led to the formation of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Thomson wrote well over two hundred scientific papers and was instrumental in the adoption of the zonal system for reckoning time. In 1900 the Queensland branch of the R.G.S.A. named its foundation medal after him and he was its first recipient in 1901. Other honours included the Peek award from the R.G.S., London (1902), and an honorary LL.D. from Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario, Canada (1903).

In 1909 Thomson successfully identified and astronomically determined the position of R. O'H. Burke's and W. J. Wills's most northerly camp on the Bynoe River. By then he considered that most Queenslanders lacked a proper appreciation of their physical environment. He was further censorious about civil servants with British citizenship who earned Queensland salaries and then returned home. Appointed C.B.E. in 1920, he retired from the public service in 1922, but continued to work tirelessly for the R.G.S.A.'s Queensland branch. Always a keen traveller with wide connexions, Thomson lectured at such towns as Charleville, Roma, Longreach, Blackall and on Thursday Island. He raised locals' awareness of their specific environments, while giving them a sense of union with a wider world.

He married twice in Sydney with Anglican rites: on 20 December 1880 Grace Winter, and, a widower, on 29 June 1887 Ada Gannon. An accomplished horsewoman, Ada was also involved with the R.G.S.A. She and their three sons and daughter survived Thomson who died at Kilcoy, Queensland, on 10 May 1941 and was cremated. Distinguished men wrote laudatory and affectionate tributes, among them Sir Douglas Mawson who extolled Thomson's 'energy and enthusiasm'.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Geographical Journal, 16, 1900-01, p 91, 17, 1901-02, pp 1, 144, 33, 1941-42, p 8, 44, 1957-59, p 48
  • Brisbane Courier, 16 Sept 1906
  • Queenslander, 14 Aug 1930, 5 July 1934
  • J. P. Thomson box (Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Queensland)
  • Thomson newsclipping book (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

W. S. Kitson, 'Thomson, James Park (1854–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 June, 1854
Unst, Shetland Isles, Scotland


10 May, 1941 (aged 86)
Kilcoy, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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