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He was the son of Thomas Falkner, a Manchester apothecary, and had Calvinist, maybe Scottish heritage, but obtained his education at the Manchester grammar school. Later on, having studied medicine under Dr. Richard Mead, he became a surgeon and practised at his native place.
His own health being delicate, he was advised to take a sea-voyage, and being acquainted with a ship chaplain on board the Assiento, a vessel trading with Guinea and carrying slaves to Buenos Aires, he accepted an invitation to accompany the vessel as surgeon. This was in or about 1731. On reaching Buenos Aires he was so ill that the captain was compelled to leave him there in the care of Father Mahoney, the superior of the Jesuit College.
Here he recovered his health, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. On 15 May 1732, he entered the Society of Jesus, becoming a member of the Paraguay province. Having spent some time at the Jesuit College of Cordoba del Tucumán in the city of Córdoba, he went as a missionary to the Puelches, near Rio Segundo. His knowledge of medicine and mechanics procured for him considerable influence among the native peoples.
In 1740 or soon after he was sent to assist Father Matthias Strobel in his mission to the Tehuelche people at Laguna de los Padres, 12 miles west of the present day city of Mar del Plata, the first human settlement in the region. For more than 30 years he worked among the Tehuelches. In 1768 the Jesuits were expelled from South America by Royal Decree of Charles III of Spain.
Falkner returned to England where, in 1771 or 1772, he joined the English province of the Society. He was appointed chaplain to Robert Berkeley of Spetchley. He then became chaplain to Mr. Berington of Winsley in Herefordshire, and afterwards to the Plowdens of Plowden Hall in Shropshire.
He is credited with discovering the first fossil in present-day Argentina, an early landmark in Argentinian science. In 1760 Falkner discovered the skeleton of a big armadillo on the banks of Carcarañá River, near the village of Santa Fe; many years later the fossil was identified as originating from a glyptodon.
This event occurred 27 years before the Dominican friar Manuel Torres discovered the fossil of a megatherium on the banks of Luján River in 1787, later studied and described by Georges Cuvier in 1796.
He was employed by the Spanish government in 1750 to draw a map of the coast of South America from the south of Brazil to Tierra del Fuego, which on its completion was printed in 1761 at Quito, and was noted for its accuracy. He also designed a chart of Paraguay in 1757, a chart of Tucuman in 1759, and several others of less importance.
He wrote an account of his Patagonian experiences, which was published at Hereford in 1774 under the title A Description of Patagonia and the adjoining parts of South America, with a grammar and a short vocabulary, and some particulars relating to Falkland's Islands. The book as published was not his original work, but a compilation by William Combe, who used Falkner's papers. The book was translated into German, French, and Spanish. Another account of the Patagonians due to Father Falkner is found in the works of Thomas Pennant, who described his essay as "formed from the relation of Fr. Falkner, a Jesuit, who had resided among them thirty-eight years".
After his death, the Spanish Jesuits who had known him in South America were anxious to obtain his unpublished works. They included treatises on the botanical and mineral products of America, and American distempers as cured by American drugs. It is stated by Fr. Caballero, S.J., that he had also edited Volumina duo de anatomia corporis humani.
Lake Falkner in Argentina is named after him, as well as a street in the city of Mar del Plata.
- Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1889). "Falkner, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography. 18. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Thomas Falkner". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Falkner, Thomas". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
- Anderson, Gerald H. (1999). Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 208. ISBN 0802846807.
- Scott, Geoffrey. "Falkner, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9124. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)