SMITH, Sir Grafton Elliot (1871-1937)

SMITH, Sir Grafton Elliot (1871-1937)
anatomist and anthropologist
was born at Grafton, New South Wales, on 15 August 1871. His father, S. S. Smith, was headmaster of the government school at Grafton and had originally emigrated from Cambridge. He was a man of many interests and encouraged his son to "cultivate a universal curiosity". Smith's first interest in science came from a small textbook on physiology which his father brought home when he was about 10 years old. He tells us in his Fragments of Autobiography, that while he was still at a high school he attended Professor Anderson Stuart's course of instruction in physiology held at the school of technology, and of his introduction there to Huxley's Elementary Lessons in Physiology. When he was studying for the senior public examination he found that it was permissible to take 10 subjects, and he decided to take physiology and geometrical drawing in addition to the eight subjects he was doing at school. Rather to the dismay of his teachers the only medals awarded to students from his school were given to Elliot Smith for the two subjects he had studied by himself. Though his father would have preferred him to enter an insurance office the boy begged to be allowed to do a trial year at the university. At the end of the year he obtained the prizes for physics and natural history, and in consequence of his good work he was awarded a bursary which took him through the medical course. It is interesting to record that among his examiners were such distinguished men as (Sir) Edward Stirling, F.R.S (q.v.), and (Sir) Charles Martin, F.R.S.; and that (Sir) Almoth Wright, F.R.S. and Professor 1. T. Wilson, F.R.S., were among his teachers. On completing his medical course in 1892 he spent a year in hospital work, and in 1894 was appointed a demonstrator in the department of anatomy at the university of Sydney. One of the earliest of his papers that on "The Cerebral Commissures of the Mammalia with special reference to the Monotremata and Marsupialia", was published this year in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. This was a remarkable production for a young man of 23, and it was soon recognized as the work of a brilliant and original mind. In 1895 he became the first student to pass the M.D. examination at Sydney, and in the following year was awarded the James King travelling scholarship which took him to Cambridge where he was soon at work in the physiological laboratory and spent three strenuous years. Part of his work was the preparation of about a dozen papers for scientific journals which established his reputation as an anatomist. In October 1897 the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology was re-organized and he was asked to take charge of "the central nervous system". In the middle of 1898 the British Medical Association gave him a scholarship of £150 a year. Difficulties, however, arose over the conditions attaching to the scholarship, and as the Sydney scholarship had expired Smith was obliged to take up a large amount of demonstrating and coaching. He had already begun his studies on the evolution and development of the brain, and was anxious that he should have time in which to do his research work. Fortunately in November 1899 he was elected a fellow of St John's College and he was able to go on with the work he loved without anxiety. On 4 July 1900 Professor Macalister offered him the professorship of anatomy at Cairo and Smith immediately accepted the position. During the intervening few weeks he was married to Kathleen Macredie and he arrived in Cairo with his wife in October. He liked his new surroundings, and soon had the school of anatomy in running order. He was able to spare time to do a good deal of work on his descriptive catalogue of the brains in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and he also examined and reported on a large mass of human remains collected by the archaeologists working in Egypt. This work was the basis of his book, The Ancient Egyptians, published 10 years later. Anthropology was henceforth to form an important part of his work. In the middle of 1902 he had a holiday in Australia, and returned to find an immense amount of work waiting for him. In addition to his other studies he became interested in the technique of mummification and spent much time on it in the following years. The eventual result was his book on The Royal Mummies, published in folio in 1912 with many plates. These studies were not merely archaeological, they belong to the history of medicine, for the bodies of these ancient Egyptians revealed much of physical and pathological interest.
All the while Elliot Smith was continuing his teaching work in the school of medicine, which became very efficient. In 1900 he had undertaken the writing of a textbook of anatomy but time could not be spared from his many other studies. He visited England in 1906 and 1907 and spoke at meetings of the Anatomical Society, and on his return to Egypt found still more work awaiting him. It had been decided to raise the level of the Aswan Dam, which meant submerging a large area. A systematic examination of the antiquities was necessary and Elliot Smith was appointed anatomical adviser. He was fortunate in obtaining Dr F. Wood Jones as his assistant, as no fewer than 6000 skeletons and mummies had to be examined. It was not merely a question of recording measurements and anatomical features, for it was found that many of the bodies were in such a remarkable state of preservation that it was possible to perform post-mortem examinations after some five thousand years, and cases of gout, rheumatoid arthritis and the adhesions consequent upon appendicitis, were all discovered in one district. He was still working hard in 1908 and realizing that he was handicapped by not being in Great Britain. However, early in 1909 the chair of anatomy at the university of Manchester became vacant and soon afterwards Elliot Smith was offered it. Though he had regrets in leaving many interests in Cairo, he felt he could do more valuable work in England and accepted the position.
Arrived in Manchester Elliot Smith immediately began to re-organize his department. He believed that the teaching of anatomy had fallen too much into a groove. The dissection of the dead body was as necessary as ever, but he felt much more study of the structure and functions of the living body might be made with the help of X-ray and other appliances. He became very popular with the students, though it has been said that he occasionally rated their knowledge and intelligence too high and got rather above their heads. He attracted post-graduate students and encouraged research. But research students were expected to be able to work without constant supervision. Immediately, however, that they showed ability and progress there was no lack of help. The department was soon in a high state of efficiency, but Elliot Smith's ability led to his having to give more and more time to administration and the various committees to which he became elected. As dean of the medical school and representative of the university on the general medical council his work was much appreciated.
In 1914 he attended the meetings of the British Association in Australia and gave a number of lectures. The war delayed his return and his department was practically without a teaching staff but he still managed to do a certain amount of research. In 1915 his The Migrations of Early Culture was published by the Manchester University Press, and soon afterwards he began doing war-work in the hospitals. Before the war he had been interested in the treatment of mental patients and had advocated reforms. In 1917, in conjunction with Professor T. H. Pears, he published Shell Shock and its Lessons, in which the use of psychiatric clinics is advocated for people in the early stages of mental disorder. It has been said that probably no one has been more influential than Elliot Smith in securing reforms in the treatment of mentally disturbed patients.
In 1919 the chair of anatomy at University College, London, became vacant and was offered to Elliot Smith. In his Fragments of Autobiography, he mentions that every advancement he obtained was by invitation. At London he continued to be as busy as ever. Early in 1920 he mentions having just finished four series of public lectures, and much time had to be given to the organizing work of his new position. He visited America in 1920 to obtain information before starting to build an institute of anatomy, and on his return found time to lecture at the universities of Utrecht and Groeningen for the Anglo-Batavian Society. Towards the end of the year he wrote the article, Anthropology, for the twelfth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which has been described as a masterly piece of condensation. It gave great offence in orthodox quarters, as indeed Elliot Smith anticipated, and he was in no way disturbed. He was greatly grieved in 1922 by the untimely death of his friend, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, which upset his plans for future work. As the literary executor of Dr Rivers he prepared and edited for publication his posthumous works. He was much interested in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen and wrote a popular book, Tutankhamen and the Discovery of his Tomb, which had a great success. Early in 1924 he published Elephants and Ethnologists, and a little later on, Essays on the Evolution of Man. In the same year he gave a course of lectures on anthropology at the university of California. On the way he was consulted by the Rockefeller Foundation as to the establishment of a department of anthropology in the university of Sydney, and he agreed to discuss the scheme with the federal government. He arrived in Australia in September 1924, and after a conference with the prime minister, Mr Bruce, the department was established. In 1925 he gave a course of lectures at the Ecole de Médecine at Paris, and was very interested in the problems involved in the discovery of Australopithecus and the Lloyd's skull. In 1926 he devoted a great deal of attention to the working out of a scheme for a school of anthropology, and in 1927 he gave a course of lectures on the history of man at Gresham College. These were published three years later under the title Human History, one of the most widely read of his books. In 1928 he published In the Beginning: the Origin of Civilization, and in the following year he attended the Pacific congress at Java. In 1930 at the request of the Rockefeller trustees he visited China to examine the newly discovered Sinanthropus at its site.
On his return he lectured to a large audience at University College on "The Significance of the Pekin Man". These various activities were all associated with the carrying on of his London professorship and the strain must have been very great. In November 1931 he mentioned in a letter that he was desperately busy and worried, but there was no limit to his activities and towards the end of 1932 he finished for publication The Diffusion of Culture. In December of that year he became partially incapacitated by a stroke, but after a few months he made a good recovery and was mentally as well as ever. But it was impossible to work as he had done before. In 1936 he retired from the chair of anatomy at University College and he died on 1 January 1937.
Elliot Smith was an honorary member of many leading continental societies and received many degrees and honours. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1907, he was afterwards a vice-president and received a royal medal from it in 1912. He became president of the Anatomical Society, he was awarded the hon. gold medal of the Royal College of Surgeons, the Prix Fauvelle, Société d'Anthropologie de Paris, and the decoration of chevalier de l'ordre national de la légion d'honneur. He was knighted in 1934. His former colleague, Professor H. A. Harris, could say of him when he died—"No one ever accomplished so much with so little evidence of hurry or effort . . . his influence and his example will live in our British school of anatomy for many a century to come." (British Medical Journal, 9 January 1937). However that may be it is significant that in 1937 more than 20 of his old demonstrators were occupying chairs of anatomy throughout the empire and U.S.A. It was one of his assistants, R. A. Dart, who discovered in South Africa the Taungs skull, Australopitheca, and another Davidson Black, who found the Pekin man, Sinanthropus. He infected his students with his own zeal. In addition to his books he wrote about 400 papers for various scientific publications. A list of these will be found in Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, a Biographical Record. He was survived by his widow and two of his three sons. A brother, Stephen Henry Smith, C.B.E. (1865-1943), was a distinguished public servant in New South Wales. He became director of education (1922-30) and published works on the history of education in Australia.
Ed. by Warren R. Dawson, Grafton Elliot Smith by his Colleagues; Nature, 9 January 1937; The British Medical Journal, 9 January 1937; The Lancet, 9 January, 1937.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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