Science Service, Up Close: A Meeting Of Minds

Perhaps it stems from a lifelong love of the Marx Brothers. The first time I saw the image (SIA Digital Image 2008-5935), I immediately thought of that scene in A Night at the Opera where the stowaways impersonate three bearded aviators and mock pompous politicians. The men in this photograph were not comedians, however. On the left was James Mavor (1854-1925), Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. In the middle was D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), Professor of Natural History, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. On the right was Herbert Wildon Carr (1857-1931), Professor of Philosophy, King’s College, London.

Science Service journalist Watson Davis took dozens of photographs at the 92nd Annual British Association conference held in Toronto, Canada, in August 1924, but none as intriguing as this particular “meeting of minds.”

James Mavor, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, and Herbert Wildon Carr. Smithsonian Institution Archives, S

Mavor had begun his academic career at the University of Glasgow, in his native Scotland. In 1892, he moved to the University of Toronto, where he served as Professor of Political Economy and Constitutional History until his retirement in 1923. As advisor to the Canadian government, Mavor wrote reports on immigration, wheat production, communications regulation, hydroelectric power, and workmen's compensation. His major publications included Economic History and Theory  (1889), An Economic History of Russia  (1914), and a posthumously published history of the Russian Revolution, influenced by his friendship with Leo Tolstoy.

 Dr. James Mavor and Patrick Geddes. Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2008-5937. Mavor had a keen interest in the arts and literature. He was editor of the Scottish Art Review, friends with designer William Morris and artist James McNeill Whistler, and a supporter of the Toronto Art Gallery and Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. The playwright George Bernard Shaw (who had known Mavor in Scottish political circles) even unfairly immortalized the economist’s name in a windbag character “James Mavor Morrell” in Candida, a gesture for which Shaw later apologized.

Mavor was, in fact, “a great talker and raconteur,” with “unflagging mental vitality at any hour of day or night.” “The awe which he inspired in his students quickly melted at his fireside,” Toronto colleague G. I. H. Lloyd wrote, because “the shrewd and twinkling eyes, the comfortable cigar puffing over the chess-board, corrected the severity of the sage-like beard.” Perception mattered. As Mavor wrote in My Windows on the Street of the World (1923): “There are two ways of knowing the world; one way is to go about it and the other is to allow the world to revolve around a fixed point. In either case we look upon the world through the window afforded by a science or an art, fully mastered or otherwise; and whether we travel or not, we see only what is revealed to us through this window.”

Herbert Wildon Carr (1857-1931), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2008-0367]. Herbert Wildon Carr’s life had taken slightly different turns but he, too, eventually became a patron of the arts, and he also knew Shaw, entertaining the dramatist in his London home. Carr’s wife Geraldine, also an artist, was reportedly an early Shaw heartthrob. By the 1920s, Carr had made enough money as a stockbroker to retire and pursue a career as a philosopher, initially becoming a professor at the University of London and then joining the University of Southern California faculty in 1925. A leading participant in the Aristotelian Society and Editor of its Proceedings until 1929, as well as an author of over a dozen books, Carr was known for his conviviality, zest for life, and eagerness to “meet old friends and make new links” among philosophers. He and Geraldine made their Southern California home “a philosophic center,” a salon for discussion of philosophy and art.

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2009-4133. Of the three men, the biologist, mathematician, and Edinburgh native D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson had the most lingering influence outside academic circles. Biologist Robert Chambers [link to SIA 2008-0187] noted that Thompson was neither a specialist nor an “encyclopedist” but that his strength lay instead in applying broad principles developed through study of ancient and modern thought, from the Greeks to contemporary biology. Thompson grew his great beard and developed his oratorical skills while still at university and published his first scientific paper at age 19, but he was no “one-day wonder.” His classic work, On Growth and Form (1917), which applied mathematical methods to biological study, continues to inspire artists and designers, as reflected in the innovative exhibitions of the D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum at the University of Dundee.

Knighted in 1937 for contributions to science and the humanities, Thompson had an international reputation as a zoologist and an expert on sea fisheries. He served as delegate to many international conventions and as scientific advisor to the Scottish Fishery Board for over 40 years. In its obituary, The Scotsman praised Thompson’s communication skills: “A master of the now almost forgotten art of talking at large, he had a beautiful command of the English language, and could speak on a multitude of subjects from a mind stored with the treasures of all the Arts.” “To spin words and make pretty sentences,” Thompson once wrote with unusual humility, “is my one talent, and I must make the best of it. … I am fallen on an age when not one man in 20,000 knows good English from bad, and not one in 50,000 thinks the difference of any importance.”

So, thanks to the eye of an astute photographer, here, preserved for all time, are three aviators of the mind, scholars who took their ideas and our dreams into the heights of arts, letters, and science.

Related Resources 

My Windows on the Street of the World, James Mavor, 

Ms 119 - James Mavor Papers finding aid, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

"Why 'James Mavor' Morell?," James Mavor Moore, The Shaw Review 

“Why the Mind Seems to Be, and Yet Cannot Be Produced by the Brain,” Herbert W. Carr, The Philosophical Review 

“Using a computer to visualise change in biological organisms,” History of Mathematics archive

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