Born in West Somerville, Maine, Dr. Thornton was a son of the late John William and Winifred Amelia, longtime residents of Winchester, Maine.
Dr. Thornton was educated in the Winchester public schools; at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., from which he received in 1939 the B.A. with honors in General Scholarship and High Distinction in English; and at Western Reserve University and Harvard University, where he received MAs before World War II. Further studies at the University of Colorado (Boulder) Naval Japanese Language School prepared him for his overseas service with United States Naval Intelligence as both a translator and interrogator. With the peace he returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. in English Philology, graduating in 1949 as a Teaching Fellow and as a Dexter Fellow.
For 45 years Dr. Thornton made a career of teaching at Harvard University, the University of Colorado, St. Stephen's Episcopal School (Austin, Texas), the University of South Carolina (Columbia), Kansas State University (Manhattan), and the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he chaired the department of English and world literature. His scholarship made him an international authority on Robert Burns and the cultural history of 18th century Scotland. Dr. Thornton was the first professor to be signaled out by the Graduate School of Kansas State University as a foremost teacher; at the University of South Carolina he was the first recipient of the Donald Russell Prize for illustrious scholarship. Articles, books, and such collaborations as that with Melville Smith, Director of the Longy School of Music and with Thomas Heyward, Metropolitan Opera tenor, for the LP record of the songs of Robert Burns and Francis Hopkinson brought Dr. Thornton such awards as Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Grantee of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Grantee of the American Council of Learned Societies, and inclusion in Who's Who in America.
Surviving are his wife of 63 years, Grace Ellen; two sons Robert Harrington, college dean, Naugatuck, Conn., and David Farrington, actor, New York City; and a brother Norman Miles of Yarmouth, MA.
Arrangements were entrusted to Kiser Funeral Home.