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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burkitt, Arthur Neville (1891–1959)

by Jonathan Stone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Arthur Neville St George Handcock Burkitt (1891-1959), professor of anatomy, was born on 25 March 1891 at Goulburn, New South Wales, son of Irish-born William Arthur Handcock Burkitt, medical practitioner and pastoralist, and his wife Edith Kathleen Rose, née Ussher, from England. Educated at King's College, Goulburn, Arthur was influenced by his reading of natural history and by his experience of the bush. He enrolled in science and next in medicine at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., M.B., 1916), graduating with first-class honours in both.

Following a residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1917, Burkitt was attracted to an academic career and accepted a part-time post as demonstrator in anatomy at the university. On 12 June 1918 at St James's Anglican Church, Sydney, he married a nurse Emily Hordern. Appointed surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy on 1 July, he served at sea on the Australia Station. His appointment terminated on 1 October 1919 and he returned to the anatomy department as lecturer and demonstrator. In 1924 he studied at University College, London, on a Rockefeller grant; back in Sydney, he was promoted associate-professor next year. Following the death of his mentor J. I. Hunter, Burkitt became Challis professor of anatomy in January 1926; he was to hold the post for almost thirty years. In 1930-31 and 1938 he studied the comparative anatomy of the brain at the Netherlands Central Institute for Brain Research, Amsterdam.

Burkitt's tenure of the chair was remembered by all who knew him with affection, often tinged with regret. The affection arose from Burkitt's personal qualities—his courtliness of manner, gentleness of character and diffidence—and from his professional enthusiasms—his love of books and scholarship, and his willingness to help others. It also stemmed from his private enthusiasms—for racing-cars (he owned five at one stage, among them the Bugatti in which W. B. Thompson won the 1930 Australian Grand Prix, with Burkitt as riding mechanic), for private cars (he owned a large Daimler and a 6.7 hp Fiat) and for his yacht which he moored in Middle Harbour and made available to the R.A.N. in 1941-44.

The regret stemmed from Burkitt's inability to meet his early high promise in research. After a determined start, his scholarship was constrained by his shyness, as well as by the stringencies of the Depression and World War II which no professor could prevent eroding the infrastructure of his department. It was further constrained by the flood of returned servicemen whose numbers stretched the weakened universities beyond reasonable limit, and then by Parkinson's disease which grew on him in the 1940s, was diagnosed in 1950 and forced him to resign in April 1955. Nevertheless, he published nineteen scholarly papers on neuroanatomy and human anthropology.

From the mid-1930s Burkitt had facilitated the scholarship of colleagues and students by building major collections of neuroanatomical material and scientific literature, and by personal encouragement. He arranged the appointment of J. L. Shellshear as research professor of anatomy (1937-48). Shellshear's work brought distinction to the department and his collection formed the nucleus in 1959 of a museum of comparative anatomy and physical anthropology. Burkitt used his own financial resources to bring together and make available a major collection of European scientific literature which provided the basis of the Burkitt Library in the faculty of medicine. He was fluent in several languages and assisted students by translating for them.

Survived by his wife and two sons, Burkitt died of cerebral vascular disease on 14 December 1959 at Mosman and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £116,453. A sheep station, Spring Ponds, near Bungonia, New South Wales, which he had inherited from his father, was bequeathed to his sons.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1948)
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Apr 1960
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 9 Apr 1960
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 1924, 4 Nov 1925
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1938
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 June 1960
  • University of Sydney Senate minutes, 10 June 1918, 2 Nov 1925, 6 Dec 1954, 16 Dec 1959 (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Jonathan Stone, 'Burkitt, Arthur Neville (1891–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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