Papers of and relating to Sir Grafton Elliot Smith

  • Reference
      GB 133 GES
  • Dates of Creation
      early 20th century; 1969
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      ).3 li.m. 24 items
  • Location
      Collection available at University Archive and Records Centre, main John Rylands University Library.

Scope and Content

The collection comprises miscellaneous papers of Grafton Elliot Smith, mostly manuscript notes and drafts relating to his interest in anthropology and ethnology. There is also an interesting letter from Smith to Sir Arthur Keith, dated September 1913, concerning the 'Piltdown man' remains.

Administrative / Biographical History

Grafton Elliot Smith was born in Grafton, New South Wales in 1871, the son of a schoolmaster. He was educated at the University of Sydney Medical School, and after a successful undergraduate career, took up a position as demonstrator of anatomy at the University of Sydney. Here, he began his researches into the anatomy of the mammalian brain. In 1895 Smith was awarded the MD with Gold Medal for a thesis on the anatomy of the brain of non-placental mammals. In 1896 he moved to the University of Cambridge as a research student, where he continued his work on brain morphology and introduced the microtome for the preparation of brain tissue for study. During his time at Cambridge he began work on a descriptive catalogue of the brains of mammals and reptiles in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, a work completed in 1901.

In 1899 Smith was elected a fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, but only remained in this post for a short time. In 1900 he was appointed professor of anatomy at the Government Medical School, Cairo. In Cairo, Smith developed a new research interest in Egyptology, for which he was to win an international (and controversial) reputation. Smith became an expert on mummification and was heavily involved in the Archaeological Survey of Nubia. In 1906 he described his findings in A contribution to the study of mummification in Egypt. Smith continued his studies of the modern brain, and this stimulated an interest in physical anthropology and evolution, which was to become a dominant interest of his later career. Smith was especially interested in the study of the brain in connection with racial differences and extinct humanoids. He propounded a thesis of cultural diffusion based on the development of early civilisation in Egypt, which gradually spread to other parts of the world. Smith advanced these views in The Ancient Egyptians and their influence on the civilization of Europe and The migrations of early culture (1915). He won repute with his theories but many anthropologists considered Smith's 'diffusionist' thesis of cultural change to be too doctrinaire.

Smith's interest in extinct humanoids brought him to the public attention when he became involved in the Piltdown Man affair in 1912. Smith had been one of those persuaded of the authenticity of the remains of an alleged primitive humanoid, discovered by Charles Dawson at Piltdown Common, Sussex. The finds were later revealed to have been an elaborate hoax.

In 1909 Smith had become professor of anatomy at the University of Manchester. At Manchester, he introduced important changes to the teaching of anatomy. During the First World War, he worked with another Manchester colleague, T.H. Pear, and with W.H.R. Rivers on shellshock. In 1919 Smith became professor of anatomy at University College, London. where he helped establish the Institute of Embryology and Anatomy, with Rockefeller Foundation funding. The Institute won an international reputation for its anthropological and anatomical work. Smith retired from the chair in 1936. Smith was elected FRS in 1907, was president of the Anthropological Section if the British Association in 1912, and was president of the Anatomical Society in 1924. He was knighted in 1934.

Smith enjoyed a major reputation as an anatomist and anthropological educator during his lifetime. He had considerable skill as an elucidator and was a noted controversialist. He was a skilful populariser of human evolution theory in such works as: The Evolution of Man(1924), Human History (1930), Early Man (1931), and The Search for Man's Ancestors(1931). Smith also exercised great influence as a teacher and his students were to take up academic posts across the world.


The collection is divided into the following series:

  • GES/1 Material relating to Piltdown Man
  • GES/2 Manuscript notes and writings
  • GES/3 Anatomical drawings
  • GES/4 Correspondence concerning custodial history of collection.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Other Finding Aids


Separated Material

Smith's private papers have been dispersed. The British Library, Manuscript Collections have a collection of his papers [ref: Add MSS 56303-04] and University College London (UCL) Manuscripts Room have papers relating to his later career [ref: NRA 24781 University College].

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, The John Rylands University Library, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PP.

Custodial History

The papers appear to have been stored at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, London, presumably since the death of Smith in 1937. They were uncovered by Professor A. J. E Cave in 1967. Cave donated them to Professor G.A.G. Mitchell, professor of anatomy at the University of Manchester [see correspondence in GES/4/1]. Mitchell transferred them to the University Medical Library, where they were incorporated into the Manchester Medical Collection. The collection was withdrawn from the MMC in 2004 during cataloguing, and is now treated as an discrete archive.

Related Material

JRUL has a small collection of correspondence between Smith and G.G. Campion relating to issues of neurology and neuroanatomy (GGC).


See Warren Dawson ed., Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (London 1938) , which includes essays on various aspects of his career, and a bibliography of his published writings.