drawings of whale skull and of Zadock Thompson (a portrait)

Thompson (right) identified a beluga whale skeleton (skull, left) buried in Charlotte, Vt.

Naturalist, historian, priest

Zadock Thompson, whose research has exerted a tremendous influence on Vermont scholars since the Civil War, worked alone, "without any associates engaged in like pursuits...and almost without books."

Born in Bridgewater, Vermont, in 1796, Thompson graduated from the University of Vermont in 1823 and taught there until 1833. After a teaching stint in Québec, Thompson served as Assistant State Geologist from 1845 to 1848, State Naturalist from 1853 to 1856, and professor at UVM from 1851 to 1856—as well as being an Episcopal priest. He was the first writer on Vermont's history and natural science, on subjects as wide-ranging as geology, geography, botany, paleontology, zoology, entomology, and mineralogy. His books include Gazetteer of the State of Vermont (1824), History of the State of Vermont (1833), History of Vermont, Natural, Civil, and Statistical (1842), Northern Guide (1845), Geography and Geology of Vermont (1848), First Book of Geography for Vermont Children (1849), and The Natural History of Vermont (1850).

The Natural History of Vermont offers a revealing look at three decades of Thompson's work, including the details of the conditions in which he studied, "without any associates engaged in like pursuits—without having access to any collections of specimens and almost without books,” a problem which held him back as much as any other he encountered. But these obstacles didn't stop him from tackling many different natural history puzzles. Most famously, he helped identify a mysterious skeleton that railroad workers found buried in Charlotte, Vermont, in 1849 as that of a beluga whale, providing evidence for the 12,000-year-old Champlain Sea. (The Charlotte whale is on display at the University of Vermont's Perkins Geology Museum, across the street from Torrey Hall.)

Thompson was an early advocate of conserving natural resources and protecting endangered species. In 1852, he became a Lecturer in Chemistry at UVM and was later promoted to Professor of Natural History and Curator. Besides teaching and publishing his books, Thompson also helped revive a Vermont Geological Survey in 1853. However, his failing health impeded progress on this project. On January 19, 1856, at the age of 59, he passed away at his home. His wife Phebe entered the day's temperatures in the meteorological notebook, just as he had done for 30 years, adding only, "Mr. Thompson died 5 PM.”

Biography by Bill McKern, revised by Sonia DeYoung