Professor Sir Charles Wyville Thomson lived from 5 March 1830 to 10 March 1882. He was an eminent oceanographer who served as chief scientist on the 3½ year expedition by HMS Challenger. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Charles Wyville Thomson was born in West Lothian, the son of a surgeon working for the British East India Company. He was educated at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh before studying at the University of Edinburgh. In 1851 he became a lecturer in botany at the University of Aberdeen, and two years later he was appointed Professor of Natural History in Queen's College, Cork. He later moved to the Queen's University of Belfast, first as Professor of Mineralogy and Geology and later as Professor of Natural History. In 1870 he became Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh.
Wyville Thomson was especially interested in the biology of the oceans. In 1868 and 1869 he persuaded the Royal Navy to lend him two ships to undertake deep sea dredging to gain a better understanding of life down to a depth of 1200m. He published his results in The Depths of the Sea in 1873. By the time it appeared, however, Wyville Thomson had already embarked on a far greater adventure. In 1870 the Royal Navy had agreed that Wyville Thomson could specially modify one of its ships, HMS Challenger, for scientific purposes and use it to explore aspects of the marine environment never before explored. The ship had 16 of her 18 guns removed to make room for laboratories and miles of line for dredging and for sounding equipment. She was 200ft long and had three masts supplemented by a steam engine.
Between December 1872 and May 1876 the Challenger Expedition, as it became known, covered 70,000 miles. During the expedition, over 4500 new species of marine life were discovered and hundreds of soundings, trawls, dredgings, and temperature observations were taken. The result was described by an eminent oceanographer of the day as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries".
After HMS Challenger's return, Charles Wyville Thomson received a knighthood. He published a two volume Voyage of the Challenger in the Atlantic in 1877, but the work involved in the publication of the full 50 volumes of research findings of the expedition was too much for him, and he died in 1882. Wyville Thomson is remembered in a stained glass window in St Michael's Church in Linlithgow, and the Wyville-Thomson Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean is named after him. The NASA Space Shuttle Challenger was named after HMS Challenger as a recognition recognition of the importance of its voyage (and, doubtless, the fact it had a pretty good name).