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KEITH, Sir Arthur (1866-1955)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0114 MS0018
Held at: Royal College of Surgeons of England
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Full title: KEITH, Sir Arthur (1866-1955)
Date(s): 1890-1955
Level of description: Fonds
Extent: 6 metres
Name of creator(s): Keith | Sir | Arthur | 1866-1955 | knight | Anatomist, Anthropologist and Botanist
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

Sir Arthur Keith (1866-1955) Kt. 1921; F.R.S. 1913; M.R.C.S. 1894; F.R.C.S. 1894; L.R.C.P. 1894; M.B. Aberdeen 1888; M.D. 1894; F.R.C.S. Ed. 1930; F.R.S.N.Z. 1939; L.L.D. Aberdeen 1911, Birmingham 1924; D.Sc. Durham 1921, Manchester 1923, Oxford 1930. Arthur Keith was born at Old Machar, Aberdeenshire, fourth son and sixth of ten children of John Keith, a farmer, and Jessie Macpherson his wife. He was educated at Gordon's College and Aberdeen University (Marishal College), where he graduated with first class honours in 1888. It was at Aberdeen that Keith came under the influence of James Trail, the botanist and Sir John Struther, the anatomist. After postgraduate study at Leipzig, he spent three years in Siam as physician to a rubber company with a commission to collect botanical specimens for Kew, and he also made extensive study of the muscles of cqatarrhine monkeys. The botanical collection was later used by H N Ridley in his comprehensive work on Flora of the Malay Peninsula. Keith's thesis based on his monkey research earned him the M.D. at Aberdeen, with the Struthers anatomy medal in 1894. He took Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England the same year while working under G D Thane at University College, London, and in 1895 was appointed to teach anatomy at the London Hospital Medical College, where he worked with marked success until 1908. He was an extremely popular and efficient teacher and in 1898 published a seminal textbook Human Embryologand Morphologyy, which went through six editions. Keith also began extensive research in teratology, particularly on the anatomy and malformations of the heart. In the course of this work he was the first to describe, with his pupil Martin Flack, the sino-atrial node or pacemaker of the human Heart (Lancet 1906, 2, 359; Journal of Anatomy 190 ,41, 172).

He was appointed Conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1908, and began to revive the scientific side of the College's works by his brilliant lectures, popular scientific writings, and by attracting surgeons, anatomists and anthropologists to work with him for shorter or longer periods in the Museum and its laboratories. The Hunterian Museum, under Keith's direction became recognised as one of the finest records of the structure, history, anatomical and embryological basis of the human body and the surgical disabilities and disorders that can effect it. Keith started to concentrate on the problems of human evolution and the diversification of the modern races of mankind. There followed a number of palaeo-anthropological studies in which Keith claimed a higher antiquity for Homo sapiens than was usually accepted. In recent years some of the fossils on which Keith based his studies have been found to be more modern than he was able to assertion using the methods of dating at the time.

Keith was elected F.R.S. in 1913 in recognition of his anatomical researches, but the last forty years of his life were devoted to anthropology. The publication of the alleged discovery of the Piltdown skull in 1912 led Keith into serious controversy with those who claimed that the skull (as well as the jaw) displayed remarkable simian characteristics, and he was able to show that, if properly reconstructed, the skull was, in fact quite like that of Homo sapiens. Nevertheless, though he expressed doubts as to the interpretation of this 'fossil', which we now, know to have been a forgery, Keith thought that Piltdown man was akin to a very early ancestor of modern man.

He published The Antiquity of Man in 1915, with an enlarged edition in 1925 and a supplementary volume of New Discoveries in 1931. These works attempted to review all the fossil remains of man.

During the First World War Keith was occupied with problems of surgical anatomy related to war injuries, and published a number of lectures on the anatomical and physiological principles underlying the treatment of wounds to the muscles, bones and joints Some of these lectures given during 1917-18 appeared in his work of 1919 Memoirs of the Maimed (1919, reprinted 1952. He was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1914-1917.

After the First World War the army medical authorities gave the College it's collection of war specimens (in 1946 a second collection was given). Other notable collections added during Keith's Conservatorship were the Onodi collection of nasal anatomy specimens bought for the College in 1921; Sir William MacEwen's specimens given in 1924 and the Strangeways collection of chronic arthritis specimens. Keith also oversaw new collections medico-legal, historical, Odontological specimens and instrument collections.

During the 1920s he became a one-man 'Court of Appeal' for physical anthropologists from all over the world, while his journalism made his name familiar amongst the general public. He was in the tradition of T H Huxley in his efforts to popularise science. Keith was knighted in 1921. He was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1927, his Presidential address was entitled Darwin's Theory of Man's Descent as It Stands Today. Keith was also active in the Royal Institution as Fullerian Professor (1918-1923), Honorary Secretary, and a Manager. His children's lectures there formed a popular book on Engines of the Human Body (1919, second edition 1925).

Berkeley Moynihan later Viscount Moynihan (1865-1936) became President of the College in 1926 and was very supportive of Keith's endeavours. With the financial aid of Sir Buckston Browne (1850-1945) Moynihan founded in 1932, at Keith's instigation, the Buckston Browne Research Farm at Downe in Kent. Keith and Browne had already persuaded the British Association to form the Darwin Museum in Darwin's home, Down House. Keith retired as Conservator in 1933 and moved to Downe to become the first master of the Buckston Browne Research Farm.

In 1930 Keith became Rector of Aberdeen University and in his Rectorial address he developed the thesis that nationalism is a potent factor in the evolutionary differentiation of human races, this idea was expanded in to A New Theory of Human Evolution which was published in 1948.

Keith married in 1899 Celia Caroline Gray; Keith and his wife formed a small collection of water-colours by leading artists, which he bequeathed amongst his friends. There were no children, and Lady Keith died at Downe in 1934.

During Keith's years at Downe 1933-1955, besides supervising young surgeons engaged in research at the farm Keith continued to be active, writing many semi-popular articles mostly on evolution and Darwinism. He wrote his Autobiography in 1950. He died suddenly at Downe in 1955.


Scope and content/abstract:

The papers contain Keith's extensive correspondence, diaries (1908-1954), reports on work as conservator annual (1931-1934) and quarterly reports (1928-1932), talks, drafts of publications, unpublished manuscripts; drawings, notes on visits to Siam, Egypt and America.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

By record type and then by author

Conditions governing access:

Access to Collection on written application to The Archivist, Royal College of Surgeons of England 35-43 Lincoln Inn Fields London WC2A 3PN. A fee to use the library may be payable to readers who are not Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copy permission on application to The Archivist, Royal College of Surgeons of England 35-43 Lincoln Inn Fields London WC2A 3PN.

Finding aids:

Typescript list

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Papers bequeathed to RCS in 1955.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Royal College of Surgeons of England Archives: Papers of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 1745 - date; Manuscript Collections: Papers of Frederick Wood Jones (1879-1954).

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
The biographical history is based upon 'Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons 1952-1964'; DNB; 'An Autobiography' Sir Arthur Keith 1950; Bibliography of works of Sir Arthur Keith [Typescript Royal College of Surgeons of England library]. Description compiled by Claire Jackson.

Rules or conventions:
ISAD(G) 2nd edition, and NCA rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names (1997).

Date(s) of descriptions:
September 2000

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