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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


THOMSON, James Allan


Scientist and scientific administrator.

A new biography of Thomson, James Allan appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Allan Thomson was born at Dunedin on 29 July 1881. His father, the Hon. Geo. M. Thomson, was a noted naturalist and later a member of the Legislative Council; his mother, Emma, née Allan, was the eldest daughter of the Allan family of Hopehill, East Taieri. Allan Thomson was educated at Kaikorai School and at Otago University, where he was elected the first Rhodes Scholar for New Zealand. Four years were spent at Oxford University and two as a petrologist in the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, in Western Australia. In 1911 he joined the New Zealand Geological Survey as Palaeontologist, and three years later became Director of the Dominion Museum. He made a particular study of Tertiary and Recent sea shells called brachiopods, and his textbook Brachiopod Morphology and Genera, Tertiary and Recent is still in demand today, a rare achievement, for textbooks are usually soon outdated by further research.

Thomson is also much respected for the most valuable contributions he made to New Zealand Tertiary stratigraphy – to the problem, that is, of determining the order in which the younger sedimentary rock strata were deposited, of how they might be grouped and named, and of how, too, they could be compared in their ages with the strata of other lands. Although amended and elaborated, his scheme of classification is still in use today. In addition, he continued an active interest in petrology and general geology. Thomson was an innovator in other respects: he helped to establish the present Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and founded the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, which became the vehicle of publication for government-based scientific research.

Thomson's health was poor. He had contracted tuberculosis in Australia in 1911, from which he died at the age of 46 at Wellington on 6 May 1928, while still Director of the Dominion Museum. He left two children, his wife having died in 1915.

Allan Thomson was one of these rare scientists able not only to administer but also to conduct brilliant research and to bring his results to publication. Consequently his position in New Zealand science is an eminent one. Most New Zealand palaeontologists and biologists in their researches on past and present animal life have been content to describe species and genera. Thomson went much further, exploring the relationships of fossils within a broad framework of evolutionary development.

by John Bruce Waterhouse, M.SC.(N.Z.), PH.D. (CANTAB.), New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.

  • N.Z. Journal of Science and Technology, Vol. 10, Part 2 (1900) (with list of published works)
  • In Memoriam James Allan Thomson, Thomson, G. M. (n.d. privately printed)
  • Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 59 (1929), (Obit).


John Bruce Waterhouse, M.SC.(N.Z.), PH.D. (CANTAB.), New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.