University College London, Anatomy Building Sub-Committee Minutes

Scope and Content

Ts. minutes of the Anatomy Building Sub-Committee. Includes pamphlet by Grafton Elliot Smith entitled 'University College, London Department of Anatomy' (1924).

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937), professor of anatomy, Egyptologist and anthropologist, was born on 15 August 1871 at Grafton, New South Wales, second son of Stephen Sheldrick Smith, headmaster, a Londoner who had migrated in 1860, and his Sydney-born wife Mary Jane, née Evans. With his brother Stephen, he was educated under his father at Grafton (Superior) Public School and, after the family moved to Sydney in 1883, at Darlington Public School; later while at Sydney Boys' High School he enrolled in evening classes in physiology given by Professor (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart, which developed his childhood interest in human biology.

In 1888 Smith entered the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1893). Professor James Wilson made him a prosector. He was a resident medical officer at (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital (1893) before becoming a demonstrator of anatomy at the university (1894-1895). Smith chose neuro-anatomy as a research field: in 1895 he graduated M.D. with a gold medal for his thesis on the anatomy and histology of the brains of the non-placental mammal.

Aided by the James King of Irrawang travelling scholarship, Elliot Smith went to England in 1896 and was an 'Advanced student' at St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1898; M.A., 1903). He published a substantial series of papers on neuro-anatomical topics, which led, in 1899, to his election as a fellow of the college. In 1900 he was appointed first professor of anatomy in the Egyptian Government School of Medicine, Cairo.

In Cairo Elliot Smith organized a virtually new department and provided most of the anatomy teaching. In 1901 he was consulted on anatomical and anthropological problems by the Hearst Egyptological Expedition of the University of California and began, perforce, his anthropological research. In 1907 he was commissioned by the Egyptian government to investigate human remains excavated from an area threatened by the rising waters of the Aswan dam, and was joined in this work by Frederic Wood Jones. They reported on over 20,000 Nubian burials.

In 1909 Smith was appointed to the chair of anatomy at Victoria University of Manchester. He both continued his neurological studies and began to develop theories about the migrations of early culture from Egypt to other lands in 'The Ancient Egyptians' (1911), 'The Royal Mummies' (1912), and 'The Migrations of Early Culture' (1915), reprinted from his lectures which had galvanized the Literary and Philosophical Society, Manchester. A fellow of the Royal Society from 1907 (vice-president, 1913-1914), he was awarded its royal medal in 1912.

In 1914 Elliot Smith returned to Australia for a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and lectured upon the significance of the Talgai skull, the existence of which was announced at the meeting. Back in wartime England, he diversified his interests and served the war effort by study of the neurological problems of shell-shock. He was a member of the General Medical Council (1913-1919).

A fellow of the Royal College of Physicians from 1915, in 1919 Smith was appointed to the chair of anatomy at University College, London, where his ambition to revive British anatomy was given strong financial support by the Rockefeller Foundation. He also mounted a most impressive research programme, one result of which was that, within a few years, he had 'dispelled the period of anatomical nihilism' in Britain. He also sent his trainees far afield: Davidson Black to Peking, and Australians R. A. Dart to Johannesburg, H H Woollard to Adelaide and Joseph Shellshear to Hong Kong. In 1922-1926 he strongly sponsored the work of John Irvine Hunter of Sydney. By 1938 over twenty of Elliot Smith's former staff were in chairs of anatomy around the world. He was president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1924-1927.

Smith visited Australia in 1924, lectured widely and helped to persuade the Rockefeller Foundation to support the establishment of the chair of anthropology at the University of Sydney under Federal auspices in 1926. From the early 1920s he developed his 'diffusionist' school of cultural migration which challenged conventional views and stimulated research. His most important later anthropological works include 'Tutankhamen' (1923), 'Elephants and Ethnologists' (1924), 'Human History' (1930), 'The Search for Man's Ancestors' (1931) and 'The Diffusion of Culture' (1933). His theories, popular at the time, have been discounted.

Among other honours he was appointed an honorary fellow of St John's College (1931) and chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1936). Smith was knighted in 1934. In 1936 he retired from University College and on New Years Day 1937 died at Broadstairs, Kent.

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