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Robert Thomson (1829 - 1905):

Robert Thomson was the third son of James Thomson (1786-1849) Headmaster of Mathematics at the Belfast Academical Institution, subsequently Professor of Mathematics at the Collegiate Department of that establishment and later Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. Two of Robert’s elder brothers developed distinguished careers: James Thomson (1822-1892) was a successful engineer, Professor of Engineering at Queen’s College, Belfast and later the University of Glasgow; the other was the outstanding mathematician and physicist of international distinction, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, OM. Robert’s career, ultimately successful, and reflecting the family talent for mathematics, would be rather less orthodox. 

Robert was a frail child who was frequently ill, and was educated at home under the supervision of his father. He matriculated at Glasgow University in Greek, but did not graduate, instead entering the Glasgow office of the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society. On his father’s death from cholera in 1849, an event which struck deeply into that close-knit family, he emigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand, moving to Sydney, New South Wales in or around 1853. On 11 July he was appointed secretary to the Australian Mutual Provident Society, then a small and obscure organization. He supervised the expansion of the society's operations to New Zealand in 1854 and Hobart, Tasmania, in 1855, and in 1861-65 he was secretary and actuary to the society whose growth under his direction was shown in his last annual report of 1865. Professor John Smith, who was foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics in the University of Sydney, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, and a director and chairman of the Australian Mutual Provident Society wrote of Thomson: “Whatever his shortcomings there can be no question that his enthusiasm in the cause of life insurance contributed much to the rapid development of our society”. His shortcomings were principally that whatever his undoubted actuarial gifts and professional success, his personal financial affairs were little short of chaotic, with perpetual debts and several bankruptcies. 

However, he recovered professionally and in 1868 set up as an accountant, actuary and insurance broker at first independently, then as founder, secretary and actuary of the Mutual Life Association in Sydney. In May 1871 he moved to Melbourne as a founder and consulting actuary to the Australian Widows’ Fund Life Assurance Society. His most notable achievement was with the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, founded in 1873, of which he was the consulting actuary, widely regarded as a genius at his work, if a singularly eccentric one. Other activities included preparing actuarial tables for superannuation funds for Friendly Societies and conversion tables for the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce to aid their introduction of the metric system into wholesaling. In 1880 he received formal notification of his re-admission to the Institute of Actuaries of Great Britain and Ireland and in December 1886 he read a paper before the Historical Society of Australasia on the development of life assurance in the southern hemisphere. 

He died of heart and lung failure and was survived by three daughters, his wife having predeceased him. In 1908, his brother, Lord Kelvin, died and left to Robert’s daughters the considerable sum of £10,000 to be divided between them.

Born: 25 February 1829
Died: 9 September 1905
Richard Froggatt

Professor Sir Peter Froggatt


Australian Dictionary of Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography; John Jamison: The History of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution 1810-1960