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Smith, William Ramsay (1859–1937)

by Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Ramsay Smith (1859-1937), by Stump & Co., c1926

William Ramsay Smith (1859-1937), by Stump & Co., c1926

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7479

William Ramsay Smith (1859-1937), physician, naturalist, anthropologist and civil servant, was born on 27 November 1859 at King Edward, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of William Smith, farm servant and later railway-stationmaster, and his wife Mary, née McDonald, domestic servant. He went to Cairnbanno Madras Public School before becoming a pupil-teacher, then attended Moray House Training College while studying arts at the University of Edinburgh from 1877. He became headmaster of Invergordon Public School but, interested in psychology, began medical studies in 1884. He supported himself by scholarships and by teaching natural history and zoology at the university, and graduated B.Sc. (natural sciences) in 1888 and M.B., C.M. in 1892. In 1904 Smith graduated D.Sc. from the University of Adelaide and in 1913 received the M.D. degree at Edinburgh for a thesis on medical jurisprudence which was published.

On 1 June 1889 at Aberdeen he married Margaret MacKenzie, headmistress and linguist. He entered private practice at Rhyl, Wales, where he 'passed through some vicissitudes'. In May 1896 Ramsay Smith defied cautions published by the British Medical Association and accepted an appointment as physician to the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital whose honorary medical staff had resigned after a dispute with Charles Kingston's government over the dismissal of Nurse Margaret Graham. On 16 July the South Australian branch of the B.M.A. resolved that it viewed the conduct of Drs Napier and Smith, in accepting their positions, as 'highly dishonourable and unprofessional'. (Next year they were expelled from the association and were never readmitted.) On 26 July when they arrived in Adelaide they were ostracized. Six weeks later the hospital's four resident medical officers charged Smith and Napier with incompetence. After an open inquiry by the hospital board (and later by a committee of the Legislative Council) one accuser was dismissed, and the others were allowed to resign; Smith and Napier were exonerated. The B.M.A.'s antipathy intensified when Smith discovered bubonic plague in Adelaide in 1900.

In 1899 Smith was appointed physician to the infectious diseases unit at the Adelaide Hospital, city coroner, inspector of anatomy and chairman of the Central Board of Health. In 1901 he served in the South African War as surgeon captain, Imperial Bushmen's Corps; he was in charge of plague administration at Cape Town.

In August 1903 he was suspended from his coronial duties following charges of misusing human bodies. The government set up another board of inquiry. Ramsay Smith was defended by Sir Josiah Symon who castigated the hostile medical witnesses. Smith was cleared and his painstaking research commended; but, while remaining coroner and head of the health department, he had to relinquish his hospital and other duties because of possible conflict of interests.

Perhaps uniquely for Australian coroners, Smith made medical statements from the bench which were pedagogical, informed, incisive and objective. He wrote A Manual for Coroners (1904), long regarded as a standard text. Despite the stigma inflicted on him by the medical profession, he administered his duties without fear, favour or rancour. Until his retirement in 1929 he was a courageous, conscientious, effective and diligent public servant.

A public speaker for world peace, in 1903 Smith was appointed major in the Australian Army Medical Corps and from 1906, as lieutenant-colonel, principal medical officer in South Australia. From October 1914 to October 1915 he commanded the 1st Australian General Hospital, Australian Imperial Force, during 1915 in Egypt. Smith clashed with his principal matron Jane Bell over which of them should manage nursing staff; when he rejected her staffing recommendations, she requested a transfer. The mischief lay partly in her temperament and also in the confused circumstances. An inquiry into the hospital's administration resulted in both being recalled to Australia. A further British War Office inquiry freed them from blame, other than for their inability to adapt; it claimed that Bell's efforts to protect nurses had met 'a vexatious want of sympathy'. However the inquiry committed procedural irregularities: witnesses were not cross-examined, some testimonies were based on hearsay, and Smith and Bell were not there to defend themselves.

Ramsay Smith belonged to the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland and devoted thirty years to a sympathetic study of the customs and psychology of Aborigines. His entry, 'The Aborigines of Australia', in the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia (1909) had criticized misrepresentation of Aborigines and suggested review of 'our knowledge of [their] beliefs and actions'. He called them the 'most interesting [race] at present on earth and the least deserving to be exterminated by us and the most wronged at our hands'.

He was twice president of the anthropology section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and was a major contributor (with Sir Baldwin Spencer) to the section on Aborigines in the Australian Encyclopaedia (1925-26). His glass negative slides of the Aborigines at the mouth of the Murray River, the only pictorial record of that group, are housed in the Mortlock Library of South Australiana. In 1924 he published In Southern Seas (London) which is largely devoted to Aborigines. Believing that tribal Aborigines were dying out, he recorded their folklore in Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines (London, 1930). While the accuracy of this work has been questioned, his zeal for recording customs and preserving artefacts displayed the mark of a trained natural scientist.

A versatile man, Ramsay Smith was a lover of music, poetry and philosophy, an ardent cyclist and photographer and a life member and frequent president of the Lothian Club. He was also a teetotaller. Predeceased by his wife, he died at his Belair home on 28 September 1937 and was cremated. Four daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess, Cyclopedia of South Australia (Adel, 1907)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 2 (Syd, 1924)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vol 1 (Melb, 1930)
  • J. E. Hughes, A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital (Adel, 1967)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1903, 3 (37)
  • British Medical Journal, 18 Apr 1896
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 4 Jan, 26 Apr, 3 May 1900, 4 Mar, 5 Aug 1904, 7 Feb 1906
  • Honorary Magistrate, Oct 1907, Apr 1914, 30 Apr 1928
  • Lone Hand, 2 Feb 1914
  • Defence Force Journal, Oct 1977
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Aug 1903, 29 Sept 1937
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1903
  • Register (Adelaide), 23 Sept 1903
  • BMA (South Australian branch), minute book (held at AMA, North Adelaide).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance, 'Smith, William Ramsay (1859–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-william-ramsay-8493/text14941, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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