W. I. Thomas was born on a farm in Russell County, Virginia on August 13, 1863. His youth was spent in Virginia and Tennessee. After graduation from the University of Tennessee in 1884 he spent four years there as an instructor in classical and modern languages. During 1888-89 he studied at Berlin University and Göttingen University. From 1889 to 1895 he taught at Oberlin College, first English and later sociology. In 1893 while on leave from Oberlin College he entered the University of Chicago for graduate study. In the summer of 1894 he gave his first course at the University of Chicago in the Department of Sociology. He received his doctorate in sociology at Chicago in 1896 after serving for a year as an instructor; he became professor in the Department in 1910. From 1908 to 1918 he was in charge of the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, in connection with which he travelled extensively in Europe, collected much of the material on which The Polish Peasant was based, and prepared the manuscript for the five-volume edition of this work.
The association of W. I. Thomas with the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago continued unbroken until 1918, shortly after he was arrested on a charge involving allegations of violation of the Mann Act and of an act forbidding false registration at hotels. Although the charge was thrown out of court, the extensive publicizing of the arrest, particularly in the Chicago press, resulted in the termination of his appointment at the University. He moved to New York, where in 1918-19 he worked on the manuscript of Old World Traits Transplanted a volume in the series of Americanization Studies sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York—in association with R. E. Park and H. A. Miller. In 1923 he published The Unadjusted Girl, for which research funds had been provided by Mrs. W. F. Dummer of Chicago. He lectured at the New School for Social Research from 1923 to 1928. In 1927 —again with Mrs. Dummer's support—he organized a conference on "The Unconscious," under the auspices of the Illinois Society for Mental Hygiene. In the same year he became president of the
(394) American Sociological Society. In 1928 research begun two years earlier for the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial culminated in the publication of The Child in America. For the next few years he carried out a number of assignments for Lawrence B. Dunham at the Bureau of Social Hygiene, and prepared an extensive series of unpublished reports on the behavioral sciences, with particular emphasis on criminological and personality research in Germany, Belgium, and Sweden. He spent part of each year from 1930 through 1936 in Sweden, where he had an informal connection with the Social Science Institute of the University of Stockholm. In 1932-33 he served as a staff member of the Social Science Research Council, in charge of the work in the field of personality and culture. His last academic appointment was as lecturer in sociology at Har- vard University in 1936-37. The remainder of his career was spent in independent research and writing, in New Haven until 1939, and in Berkeley, California from 1940 until his death at the age of 84 on December 5, 1947.
Thomas married Harriet Park on June 6, 1888. They had five children, two of whom survived to adulthood. This marriage was terminated by divorce in 1934. On February 7, 1935 he married Dorothy Swaine Thomas.