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Silvanus Phillips Thompson's Centenary

12 June 2016


Bootham School marks Silvanus Phillips Thompson's centenary - York's eminent physics


[1867 Leavers - SP Thompson back row on left hand end]


12th June marks 100 years since the death of renowned physics Silvanus P. Thompson, who was born in York in 1851. Silvanus attended Bootham School between 1858 and 1867, and returned as a teacher between 1870 and 1875.  During his career he was appointed Professor of Physics at University College Bristol and was made Fellow of the Royal Society, President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, President of the Physical Society of London and President of the Röntgen Society.  A blue plaque, recognising his particular contribution to science, is one view on the wall of 51 Bootham.

Silvanus P. Thompson benefitted from the revolutionary science teaching at Bootham.  In an age where schools of its type focused mainly on games and the classics, Bootham was an early pioneer of science teaching, and founded the very first school science society in 1837.  The school was particularly well equipped with laboratories and had its own observatory, and regular lectures were given by visiting scientists on everything from Anatomy, Mechanics, Fossil Zoology, Physics and even the construction of the Menai Bridge.  During a speech at the school 1902, Silvanus Thompson talked about the “many memories some of us have of the mysterious operations, the photography, and the chemical explosions which went on.”  He approved of how students were taught “not to be afraid to try, to put forward their strength, to make experiments.  This character, this sturdy independence, this originality of effort, which the school has fostered,may we not hope that it will long flourish?”  He argued that the pressure of examinations should not be allowed “to spoil in the future those features of originality, those sources of independent life, and those influences which have developed the School along its own lines?  Are we to have a school of which the primary consideration is that it shall score in taking off prizes at outside examinations?  I sincerely hope that will not be so.”

He was also a strong advocate of the role of women in science and went out of his way in welcoming women scientists into public domain.  In a speech in 1899, in support of the first address by a woman to the Society of Electrical Engineers, he said; “I want to widen the opportunities for women, and above all, to make them realise and share in the pleasure I feel, that the number of women who devote themselves to science may be an ever increasing one.”

Headmaster, Jonathan Taylor said; “We like to think that this thread of encouraging curiosity, of looking for the best in each individual and enabling each person to make the best use of their own talents has continued throughout the history of the school.”


[Silvanus P. Thompson (in hat) greets Bootham Headmaster Arthur Rowntree]