Tag Archives: Centre for Research Collections

Godfrey and Hector Thomson

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(Coll-1310/1/2/2 Family Photographs)

With father’s day coming up this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to blog about the father/son relationship between Godfrey and Hector Thomson. When Hector was born in 1917, it was clear that Godfrey had a new test-subject in his infant son!

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Immediately after Hector was born, Thomson began to keep a journal recording his son’s development from his birth until the age of ten (ref: Coll-1310/1/7), a copy of which is among the records of the Godfrey Thomson collection. This journal is fascinating in its level of observation and detail about young Hector, and shows the depth of Godfrey’s commitment to understanding childrens development and intelligence. Who knows what Hector thought about the in-depth analysis of his behaviour and speech throughout his childhood, but the entries give a great insight into what it must have been like in the Thomson household.

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The many photographs in the Thomson family albums illuminate the family further, and contain several charming pictures of Hector and Godfrey together.

The first entry records Hectors appearance as a new-born on the 18th of February 1917. Godfrey notes that he “has blue eyes, brown hair, long thin limbs and a large triangle head”! Less than a month later, it is recorded that “he looks at bright objects and turns his head about when a noise is made. Finds bright objects better than he finds noises however. Smiled twice today. His eyes are much darker than when he was born and perhaps they are changing from blue to brown.”

Frequent diary entries contain details about Hector’s early years, including his thumb-sucking, his ability to see his mother in the mirror, picking up items, first words, illnesses and learning to walk. As the years went by, quotes from the rather amusing Hector were also recorded in the journal, as well as stories he made up, dreams he recounted for his parents and several drawings. Despite early attempts by his parents to make him write with his right hand, his natural tendency to left handedness won out in the end! Interestingly he had a propensity to write in mirror image, which is shown in some of his drawings.

Godfrey was obviously very interested in Hector’s intellectual development and the scientific conclusions he could draw from his observations; but this file is also a testament of the affection, pride and amusement he felt while watching his son growing up.

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Earlier blog entries have told about Hector as an adult, his wide ranging travels and his marriage to Andromache. Rather touchingly, even as an adult he always referred to Godfrey as “Daddy”. He followed in his father’s footsteps into the field of education to become a popular and well respected teacher in Nicosia and later at the University of Aberdeen.

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 Neasa Roughan, Godfrey Thomson Project Intern

Gathering Intelligence: A free seminar regarding Thomson’s life and work

Our Wellcome Trust funded project*, ‘Documenting the Understanding of Human Intelligence: cataloguing and preserving the papers of Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson’, is on course to deliver on all its objectives in the next few months. Continuing on from the cataloguing project, we aim to digitise Thomson’s papers, and catalogue related papers through the Moray House and University of Edinburgh collections.  We will also be curating an exhibition regarding Thomson’s life and work in 2016.


Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson (1881-1955)

To mark this exciting and continuing collaboration between the academic and archival communities, we are holding a free seminar for researchers, students, and archivists at Edinburgh University Library, 16th May 2014.

Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson (1881-1955) was a psychologist, statistician, and educator.  The seminar programme reflects this, and is a varied one exploring Thomson’s work in Psychology (especially cognitive testing), Statistics, Education, and Eugenics, with academic speakers from each field.  Chaired by Professor Dorothy Meill, Vice Principal and Head of the College of Humanities and Social Science, It will also discuss current scientific research facilitated through data sets left from Thomson’s work, as well as the complexities involved in interpreting and cataloguing the collection itself.

Professor Ian Deary’s British Academy Lecture on Thomson


 Gathering Intelligence: the life and work of Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson

Chaired by Professor Dorothy Meill, Vice Principal and Head of the College of Humanities and Social Science

 9. 15:              Coffee and introduction

10.00:             Martin Lawn, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Education, University of Oxford: ‘’His Great Institution’’: Thomson’s advanced school of education in Edinburgh’

10.30:             Professor Ian Deary, Director, Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology: ‘Use of Thomson’s data today in studies of cognitive ageing and cognitive epidemiology’.


11.00:             Tea and coffee

11.30:              Professor Lindsay Paterson, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh: ‘Use of Thomson’s survey work in current research on social mobility and life-long education’

12.00:              Dr Edmund Ramsden, ‘Thomson’s research and opinions on the differential birth rate and eugenics’.


12.30:             Lunch (lunch is provided), and viewing of the collection

2.00:               David Bartholomew, Professor Emeritus of Statistics at the London School of Economics: Thomson’s original statistical contributions

2.30:               Emma Anthony, Project Archivist, Godfrey Thomson Project: ‘Interpreting and Cataloguing Thomson’s papers’

3.00:               Panel discussion

4.00:               Moray House tour

4.30:               Finish

The seminar is free, but please note places must be booked through eventbrite.

Wellcome Trust bursaries for accommodation and travel are available.

For further information, contact Emma.Anthony@ed.ac.uk.

*Funded by the Trust’s Research Resources grant scheme under the call ‘Understanding the Human Brain’.  Continuing on from the current cataloguing project, we aim to digitise Thomson’s papers, and catalogue related papers through the Moray House and University of Edinburgh collections.  We will also be curating an exhibition regarding Thomson’s life and work in 2016.

‘Encounters of a mathematician’…

For the last few weeks, I have been cataloguing the papers of mathematician, Walter Ledermann (1911-2009).  The collection largely composes of highly mathematical letters from Thomson to Ledermann.  Having the somewhat dubious distinction of failing mathematics twice, its fair to say I had misgivings!

My failure as a young mathematician was due in part to my ready dismissal of mathematics as a dull, dry, monotonous subject (but in the main, a serious lack of talent!).  I remember somewhat haughtily telling my long-suffering teacher that I liked subjects about people.  Mathematics, as far as I was concerned, lacked any humanity and any discernible art.  How wrong I was.


Ledermann as a young man, from his autobiography

Ledermann, a German-Jewish refugee, was more than used to such criticism being levelled at the subject – the art form – of his choice.  In fact, he opens his autobiography, Encounters of a Mathematician, with the following:

Mathematics is a soulless occupation devoid of feeling and human values.

But that, Ledermann tells us, was never his experience:

I feel strongly that mathematics can and should form part of human relationships.

Ledermann grew up in Berlin, proving himself a talented violinist and mathematician from an early age.  He loved music, and despite growing up in the midst of the depression, attended concerts regularly by any means possible.  By the 1930s, the Berlin that Ledermann called home had changed rapidly, and he and his family were no longer welcome.  It was his love of mathematics that gave him hope – despite the anti-Semitism he encountered, Ledermann’s ability, talent, and enthusiasm could be neither denied nor quashed.  In fact, Ledermann’s talent for mathematics quite literally saved his life.

On completion of his degree at the University of Berlin in 1934, Ledermann won a scholarship created by students and citizens of St Andrews to support a Jewish refugee.  He received a warm welcome from his fellow students, his lecturers, and the local community at St Andrews, and tells us: ‘it is no exaggeration to affirm that I owe my life to the people of St Andrews’ (Encounters of a Mathematician).

Ledermann completed his PhD after just two years, and found himself at the University of Edinburgh.  This would be the start enduring friendships between Ledermann and the brilliant and troubled mathematician, A C Aitken, as well as Professor Godfrey Thomson.


Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson


Alexander Craig Aitken

Ledermann quickly became Thomson’s mathematical assistant (or ‘tame mathematician’, as he puts it!), assisting him in writing The Factorial Analysis of Human Ability.  Thomson and his contemporaries used Factorial Analysis to understand human differences (mathematics and humanity again!), and this is still a technique used by psychologists today.  Thomson spoke to Ledermann in fluent German at their first meeting, much to Ledermann’s delight, and the working relationship was a successful one:

My work with Godfrey Thomson was inspiring, creative, and intimate.  We met daily during the morning break at Moray House, where the Department of Education was situated.  After we had briefly surveyed the progress of our research on the previous day, Miss Matthew, his charming and highly efficient secretary, brought in the coffee and some delicious buttered ginger bread.

The very intensity with which he pursued his ideas, was a great stimulus for me to solve the mathematical problems he had passed on to me.  Godfrey Thomson did not claim to be a mathematician.  Although he understood mathematical formulae when they were presented to him, he preferred to verify his ideas by constructing elaborate numeral examples from which the theoretical result could be guessed with some confidence.

Sadly much of Ledermann’s replies to Thomson are absent.  Thomson sends Ledermann pages and pages of calculations with explanatory notes, then his next letter will be one thanking Ledermann for the brief formula he has sent in return (Thomson at one point refers to Ledermann’s formulae as ‘very pretty’!).  The letters also show the warmth of feeling between the two, with Thomson frequently enquiring of Ledermann’s family, many of whom were still in Germany, and telling Ledermann about his own family.


An example of the small postcards Thomson sent Ledermann

Ledermann treasured the letters.  In a letter to Lady Thomson, who was attempting to write Thomson’s biography, he writes:

I have over a hundred letters from Sir Godfrey, written between 1937 and 1946, some of them short notes, others carefully worked out in the form of a research paper, with many interesting questions and illustrations.  I greatly treasure the correspondence, not merely on account of its considerable scientific, and, may I add, aesthetic value, but also because it contains so many typical examples of that human warmth and sympathy for which Sir Godfrey finds a place even at the beginning or at the end of a mathematical letter.

Letter from Ledermann to Lady Thomson, Coll-1310/1/1/1/17

Ledermann returned to St Andrews after working with Thomson, and would go on to accept teaching positions at the University of Manchester, and the University of Sussex.  His love of mathematics continued to endear him to students and fellow lecturers, and he continued to undertake revision lectures for students for years following his retirement.  His wife, Ruth, was a social worker and therapist, and they retired together to London, where Ledermann passed away in 2009.

For Ledermann, the beauty of the equations passed between himself and Thomson were no different to the music of his violin – each displayed ingenuity and art.  His love of mathematics was the source of the most satisfying ‘human encounters’ he had throughout his lifetime, and the correspondence between himself and Thomson serves as a reminder of the beauty and humanity of mathematics.

Sources: Walter Ledermann’s autobiography, Encounters of a Mathematician

A brief history of Godfrey Thomson!

In 1932 and 1947, every 11 year old child in Scotland was given an intelligence test, known as the ‘Moray House Test’, as part of the Scottish Mental Survey.  Additionally, they were the subject of a questionnaire which gleaned information about their social and familial background.  All of this was in response to the idea that as a nation, Scotland’s intelligence was decreasing due to a supposed differential birth rate.  The resulting data, which proved this hypothesis wrong, survives to this day.  It is an entirely unique and rich source of information, which has allowed current researchers at the department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh to undertake pioneering research exploring cognitive ageing.

The creator of these tests (and chairman of the second Scottish Mental Survey) was none other than Professor Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson.

So just who was Thomson- and why do we think him so important?!

Thomson was a pioneer in the interloping fields of intelligence, statistics, and education. He was the first person to the Bell Chair of Education at the University of Edinburgh, and the Directorship of Moray House School of Education simultaneously; published prolifically on the topic of psychometrics; debated voraciously with eminent statistician Charles Spearman for almost 30 years, and last, but by no means least, was a Knight of the Realm thanks to his considerable services to Education.  More than this, Thomson was an egalitarian from a humble background, a ‘lad o’ pairts’ who achieved greatness thanks to his talent and determination, and who believed deeply in equality and fairness.


Godfrey Thomson, c1920s

The ‘Moray House Tests’ which the children sat in 1932 and 1947 actually had their origins in Newcastle in 1921.  The local authorities, who at that time provided bursaries for secondary school education, were concerned by a lack of applicants from rural backgrounds.  Thomson was conscious of the fact that rural children were often absent from school, so he wanted to create a test which would allow children to demonstrate ‘native wit’ or innate intelligence, rather than a test which would rely upon past learning.


Example of a question from the Newcastle tests

This striving for equality was typical of Thomson, and perhaps in part a result of his own humble background.  Born in Carlisle in 1881, his Mother left his Father, taking the infant Thomson with her, to return to her childhood home in Tyneside.  His Mother and he lived with her three sisters, and she earned a very modest income from working with a sewing machine firm in Newcastle.

Thomson had plans to become a ‘pattern maker’, a specialist joiner who made wooden models of steel castings for engineering works, after leaving High Felling Board School.  However, after sitting a scholarship examination, Thomson found himself at Rutherford College, where he discovered various interests in mathematics, music, and etymology.  Rutherford College was supported largely by the students entering and winning examinations as part of a government scheme, and Thomson soon became a veteran in these examinations, obtaining prizes for English and Mathematics amongst others.


Thomson as a young boy

At 16, he sat the London Matriculation exam, and returned to High Felling Board School as a pupil teacher.  During this time, he took additional evening classes, studying chemistry, physics, botany, and zoology.  In 1889, aged 18, Thomson sat the Queen’s Scholarship, an all-England competition, and came third, continuing his studies in what would become Armstrong College, and later King’s College, at Durham University.  Thomson studied for his teaching diploma and a joint Mathematics and Physics degree simultaneously, and graduated with distinction.  He went on to study at Strasbourg under the Nobel prize winning physicist, Professor Ferdinand Braun, and graduating Summa cum Laude following his work on Herzian waves.

After his three years in Strasbourg came to a close, Thomson returned to Newcastle, attaining the post of assistant lecturer at Armstrong College in order to fulfil the obligation of his scholarship.    It was here he met his wife, Jennie Hutchinson, a fellow lecturer, and here he gained an interest in Educational Psychology. In 1916 he published a paper which would ignite a 30 year debate with the eminent statistician, Charles Spearman.

Essentially, the debate centred around Spearman’s Theory of Two Factors regarding intelligence.  He believed that performance in each subject was down to specific abilities linked to each, and general ability linked to all.  Thomson provided an alternative for this in his bonds model, in which he hypothesised that any mental task requires a number of ‘bonds’, some of which are more closely related to others in ‘pools’ (Thomson made a link between these bonds and the neurons of the brain).  Thomson had no wish to discredit Spearman’s theory, rather to show that his provided an alternative, and he showed good sportsmanship in holding off publication during the war years to enable Spearman, who was serving, time to respond. However, the debate would continue until Spearman’s death in 1945.

In 1925, Thomson accepted his position in Edinburgh and his family (by now including his son, Hector) moved to Edinburgh.  It was here in what became the Godfrey Thomson Unit that Thomson and his team would formulate the Moray House Test.  The test, which included questions on verbal reasoning, English, and mathematics, was also used by local authorities throughout the UK for School selection.  Thomson was not wholly comfortable with this, but concluded testing was preferable to nepotism, and worked on making the tests as fair as possible.  Thomson could have made a considerable fortune on the tests, but instead insured all royalties were transferred into a research fund to facilitate their continual improvement.

On his retirement in 1951, Thomson, who had proved highly popular amongst staff and students, was presented with 2 portraits of himself by RH Westwater, one of which hangs in Moray House to this day.  He passed away in 1955.

These are just some of the many reasons why we think Thomson is incredibly important, and has been unfairly neglected from the history of psychometrics.  This neglect is, in part, due to scholars having no primary material to consult – the archive itself was only discovered in 2008, and it is no exaggeration to say it was rescued.

It is our task to catalogue his papers, and to ensure he finally receives the recognition his work deserves.  In the coming months, we will be blogging about Thomson, his collection, and the people he came into contact with throughout his life and career.  We hope you will enjoy!