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Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (1871–1937)

by Michael J. Blunt

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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 recognized his outstanding quality and made him a prosector.  In 1892 he won the John Harris scholarship in anatomy and physiology. He was a resident medical officer at (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital (1893) before becoming a demonstrator of anatomy at the university (1894-95). Influenced by (Sir) Charles Martin in the department of physiology, 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. His classic descriptions of the brains of monotremes and marsupials, which lack the thick band of commissural connecting fibres between the cerebral hemisphere found in other mammals, were pivotal to much further work.

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. Before leaving England, he married Kate Emily Macredie from Sydney at the Scottish National Church, Chelsea, on 22 September, and took her with him.

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 where, under the smoky chimneys and grey skies, he began what emerged as a revolution in the teaching of anatomy in Britain. Following precedent set by F. P. Mall in the United States of America, dull details of description were discarded, lectures were demoted from their place as a principal method of instruction, leaving time for the introduction of radiological anatomy for the study of the living body, for the integration of histology and for an emphasis on the functional implications of structure. He was launching ideas in England that were not to gain general currency among medical educators for twenty-five years.

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, 1913-14), he was awarded its royal medal in 1912. He was also involved at this time in examination of the Piltdown remains and entered into that disastrously resolved controversy.

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 (1913-19).

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 1922-26 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 1924-27.

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.

Exhibiting both charm and imposing presence, Smith, according to Wood Jones, combined 'the smile of a school boy with the appearance of a highly placed but benevolent dignitary of the church'. His hair was already white by his late thirties. He was genial and considerate in social intercourse and in spoken debate, but when he entered in writing on controversial topics his gentleness forsook him. Among other honours he was appointed an honorary fellow of St John's College (1931) and chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1936).

In poor health after a minor stroke in 1932, Smith continued working and was knighted in 1934. In 1936 he retired from University College and on New Years Day 1937 died at Broadstairs, Kent. His wife and two of their three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • E. B. Smith, The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Retrospect (Lond, 1937)
  • W. R. Dawson (ed), Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (Lond, 1938)
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Jan 1938, vol 2, p 323
  • British Medical Journal, 9 Jan 1937, p 99
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 20 Feb 1937, p 307
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, Mar 1937, p 51
  • F. W. Jones, ‘Grafton Elliot Smith. Life and work of a famous Australian’, Australian National Review, Apr 1937, p 2
  • Bulletin Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine, University of Sydney, 15, no 3, June 1959, p 101
  • Times (London), 2 Jan 1937.

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Citation details

Michael J. Blunt, 'Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot (1871–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 August, 1871
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia


1 January, 1937 (aged 65)
Broadstairs, Kent, England

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