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AFSC Historical Corner:  William Francis Thompson  (18881965)

Early Pioneers
Spencer F. Baird
Tarleton H. Bean
Henry Wood Elliott
George Brown Goode
Charles H. Gilbert
John Nathan Cobb
William F. Thompson
Other Individuals
Research and Mgmt.
William Francis Thompson
William F. Thompson, ca. 1951.  Photo taken from Marine Fisheries Review 63(2), 2001. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Archives, Seattle. W.F. Thompson papers, Accession Number 2597-77-1, Folder 39.

"William Francis Thompson was a major figure in fisheries research on the west coast of the United States in the early and mid 20th century. He came to prominence in an era of in-creased awareness in the United States of the need for conservation of wildlife, and for over 50 years he was a major contributor to fishery science and management as well as to fishery education. During this period Thompson was arguably the most widely known fishery scientist in North America.

Born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 1888, Will Thompson moved west with his family to Everett, Wash., in 1903. He demonstrated an early interest in the study of natural history and majored in zoology at the University of Washington, Seattle, from 1906 to 1909.

David Starr Jordan (18511931), President of Leland Stanford Jr. University in Palo Alto, Calif., learned of Thompson's drive and dedication. Jordan offered Thompson a scholar-ship, and in 1909 Thompson transferred from the University of Washington to Stanford University where he became a research assistant to Jordan. Thompson graduated with a B.A. degree in zoology in 19112 and published ten papers on the taxonomy of marine fishes during 191014, mainly as junior author with Jordan.

Pursuing graduate work at Stanford University in the fall of 1911, Thompson came under the influence of Charles Henry Gilbert (18591928), a zoology professor and eminent early fishery biologist. Gilbert thought highly of Thompson and arranged jobs for him during the summers between university semesters, first with the California Fish and Game Commission (1911) and then with the British Columbia Provincial Fisheries Department of Canada (1912 13). These assignments entailed surveys of shellfish resources.

Excelling in these studies, Thompson was then entrusted by the Provincial Fisheries Department to undertake a comprehensive, full-time investigation of the Pacific halibut, Hippoglossus stenolepis, in British Columbia. Thompson conducted an intensive study of this species from 1914 to 1917 and published the results in seven landmark papers.

In 1917 research on the halibut began to wind down as concern intensified in Canada over the ravages of World War I. Thompson was then hired by the California Fish and Game Commission to investigate that state's marine fisheries. While there, he helped found, and direct, the Commission's first marine fisheries research laboratory. Thompson focused his investigations initially on the albacore tuna, Thunnus alalunga, and then on the Pacific sardine, Sardinops sagax, as the commercial harvest of this latter species began to increase.

The International Fisheries Commission (now the International Pacific Halibut Commission) was established in 1923 by treaty between the United States and Canada to investigate and regulate the fishery for Pacific halibut. Thompson, the logical choice, was appointed Director of Investigations for the newly formed Commission, left California, and began his work for the Commission in Seattle in 1925. Expanding his earlier Pacific halibut studies, he engaged a small staff of scientists that undertook the applied research necessary for the scientific management of the halibut fishery. Thompson remained as Director of Investigations for the Commission until 1939. During his tenure halibut abundance increased, as did the commercial harvest. The halibut fishery ultimately was considered a model of a well-managed fishery.

Thompson was appointed Director of the School of Fisheries (now the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences), University of Washington, in 1930. This appointment was initially a part-time position in addition to his duties at the International Fisheries Commission.

The International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission was established in 1937 to restore the sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka, runs of the Fraser River, British Columbia. Thompson, by then recognized as one of the premier fishery scientists of the era, was chosen to be the director of this newly formed organization. He initially retained his other positions as Director of the 'Halibut Commission' and of the U.W. School of Fisheries, thus holding three jobs simultaneously! Thompson followed his previous approach to fisheries research by building a small but talented staff of scientists and broadly attacking a wide range of research projects pertinent to the current fisheries problems. He directed the research that resulted in the construction of fish ladders at Hell's Gate on the Fraser River. These ladders were built to enable salmon to bypass migration obstructions caused by certain high water-level conditions. Thompson and the Commission were generally credited with restoring the abundance of salmon in the Fraser River. He resigned from the 'Salmon Commission' in 1942 and returned to the University of Washington as the full-time Director of the School of Fisheries.

Thompson was the Director of the School of Fisheries for over 17 years (19301947). During his tenure, the school developed into a preeminent facility to train fishery scientists, and it graduated many individuals who subsequently became prominent fishery scientists and leaders in fisheries research and administration.

After the close of World War II, the salmon packers of Bristol Bay, Alaska, became concerned about the declining abundance of salmon in Alaska. In 1945 they asked Thompson to undertake a preliminary study of the situation and to make recommendations for action. Thompson visited Bristol Bay, reviewed much of the available data on the salmon fisheries of the region, and wrote a report to the packers. He called for long-term studies of the runs to various watersheds of Bristol Bay and noted that such investigations were then lacking. The salmon packers funded an expanded investigation by Thompson in 1946 and 1947. The salmon canners of southeastern Alaska soon thereafter asked that Thompson also undertake scientific investigations in that region.

Realizing that a comprehensive investigation of salmon in Alaska would ultimately require a relatively large organization, Thompson organized the Fisheries Research Institute at the University of Washington. The university's Board of Regents approved the institute in 1947 and placed it administratively in the Graduate School and therefore distinct from the School of Fisheries. Thompson resigned the directorship of the School of Fisheries in 1947 and was named Research Professor and Director of the new institute.

Over the years The Fisheries Research Institute undertook detailed studies of Pacific salmon in various areas of southeastern, central, and western Alaska. In the early years, this research was funded mainly by the Alaska salmon industry. Later, the Federal Government provided major support for these studies. The institute, well known for the high quality of its research, made major contributions over a 50-year period to knowledge of Pacific salmon biology. During the early part of this era, Thompson became the 'expert' on salmon of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, and he was involved in most aspects of salmon research. Thompson maintained close relations with the Alaska salmon industry that, in turn, respected and trusted him. He generally received broad support from industry and government for his research.

Thompson retired from the directorship of the Fisheries Research Institute in 1958 at the age of 70. He remained active as a consultant to various fishery agencies, including the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now the National Marine Fisheries Service), the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Thompson also remained close to the salmon fishing industry as an advisor. Many scientists and administrators held him in high esteem and welcomed his honest and forthright comments and criticism.

Will Thompson died on 7 November 1965. He left a legacy as a preeminent fishery scientist of his era. He influenced a myriad of fishery scientists by studying the characteristics of the fisheries, rather than the environment, to develop management strategies. Thompson's work with the halibut and salmon of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska became classic, but at times controversial, studies of commercial fisheries. He published about 150 scientific papers and was known for his original studies of population dynamics of commercial fishes.

Under Thompson's leadership, the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington became world-renowned. He was the doctoral advisor for many of the principal scientists who carried out fishery work on the Pacific coast after World War II. He was also the major fishery researcher on the West Coast during the interlude between the two World Wars. Thompson was known as a highly focused individual and an intense worker who, at times, was possessed of a difficult personality.

Always possessing a high concern for ethics, Thompson helped found the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists in 1956 to insure high standards in the profession. Thompson's pioneering accomplishments remain in high esteem today."

From:  Dunn, J. R. 2001. William Francis Thompson (18881965): a Preeminent Fishery Biologist of the Early and Mid Twentieth Century.  Marine Fisheries Review. 63(2):1-4.  (.pdf, 577 KB).

Additional reading:

  • Dunn, J. R. 2001. William Francis Thompson (18881965): a Preeminent Fishery Biologist of the Early and Mid Twentieth Century. Mar. Fish. Rev. 63(2):1-4.  (.pdf, 577 KB).
  • Dunn, J. R. 2001. William Francis Thompson (18881965) and His Pioneering Studies of the Pacific Halibut, Hippoglossus stenolepis. Mar. Fish. Rev. 63(2):5-14.  (.pdf, 1.52 MB).
  • Dunn, J. R. 2001. William Francis Thompson (18881965) and the Dawn of Marine Fisheries Research in California. Mar. Fish. Rev. 63(2):15-24.  (.pdf, 1.93 MB)
  • William Francis Thompson (1888-1965)  (AFSC website)

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