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In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature
quickly for the water, and were already swimming homeward as the next batch were being slain…. Two younger lads went round plunging a knife into the heart of any seal that still breathed, five (rippers) proceeded to slit the skins down the belly and around the neck and paws, after which the rest flayed the carcasses. The work of skinning nearly kept pace with that of killing. I could not detect in the whole process either intentional or accidental cruelty…. The killing was concluded by about 10 o’clock, an interval for breakfast intervening.
The next year he went to Alaska again, this time going east via Ceylon and Japan. In his final report to the Bering Sea Commission, Thompson concluded that the seal hunt was sustainable at its present level but that there was no room for complacency: “We may hope for a perpetuation of the present numbers; we cannot count on an increase.” He also noted that the killing of other marine mammals—whales, walruses, and sea otters—was less well regulated and posed a greater threat to those species’ survival.
The experience gave Thompson a taste for fisheries research, and for international collaborations. In 1898 he joined the fisheries board of Scotland, which was to become a lifelong commitment, and from 1902 onward he represented Scotland on the newly formed International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, lobbying the British government to support the fledgling body. All the while he kept up his classical studies. In 1901 he married Maureen Drury, his step-mother’s niece. Over the next nine years, his three daughters Ruth, Molly, and Barbara were born.
But this life left Thompson little time for his own research, and his work on applied problems cut little ice with the people who gave out jobs. “You must show that the waters of the Pacific have not washed the science out of your composition,” wrote an old Cambridge friend. Through the 1890s, Thompson applied for positions at more eminent institutions in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, but failed to get any of them. On the other hand, he applied for and won a professorship in Aberdeen but turned it down; he clearly wanted to work on his own terms, even if it hindered his progress up the greasy pole of academia. Other researchers saw him as an unproductive oddball in two fields; his papers on classical scholarship were rejected just as often as his biology ones.