S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Knox, Dr Robert (physical anthropology, medical sciences)

Born: 4 September 1791, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom.
Died: 20 December 1862, London, United Kingdom.

Robert Knox, Scotish anatomist and anthropologist, contracted smallpox as a child and was left severely disfigured and blind in one eye. He studied at the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh from 1810, qualifying as Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1814 with a thesis (in Latin) titled De viribus stimulantium et narcoticorum in corpore sano (On the effects of stimulants and narcotics on the healthy body). The next year he obtained a commission as assistant surgeon in the army. Gazetted to the 72nd Highlanders he sailed for the Cape of Good Hope as hospital assistant attached to the Royal African Corps in April 1817. On the way he made a series of about 70 measurements of the water temperature in the North Atlantic between latitudes 50 degrees and 20 degrees North, and studied the actions of the hearts of sharks, bonitos and dolphins. His ship arrived in Simons Bay at the end of June. For most of his stay at the Cape he was a hospital assistant at the General Hospital, Cape Town, but in the latter half of 1818 was attached to Lieutenant-Colonel Brereton's expeditionary force to fight in the Fifth Frontier War. He left the Cape in October 1820 to return to Edinburgh.

Knox acquired a high reputation as a surgeon at the Cape. However, his more important contributions to science were made in the fields of human and animal anatomy and anthropology, which he pursued in his spare time, turning his acute powers of observation upon almost everything around him. In July 1821 he published his "Observations on the Taenia solium (tapeworm) and on its removal from he human intestinal canal by spirits of turpentine" in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, describing how he successfully treated a widespread infestation of the British troops at the Cape by this parasite. Meanwhile he had also prepared a map of the eastern frontier of the colony, which he presented to the Director-General of the Army Medical Department. Another paper by him, "On the climate of southern Africa, with an abstract of a meteorological register kept at Graaf Reynet", was published in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1821-1822) in two parts. It included tables of the temperature, rainfall, atmospheric pressure and prevailing winds observed at Graaff-Reinet by Mr J. Ernst* during 1818 and 1819 - the first known systematic meteorological observations made in southern Africa outside the winter rainfall region. Other relevant papers included his "Notice relative to the habits of the Hyena of southern Africa" (Edinburgh Journal of Science, 1825) and several more on the anatomy of various mammals and other vertebrates.

Knox spent the year 1822 in Paris, studying comparative anatomy under Cuvier, Geoffroy St Hilaire and others. He met the traveller Francois Le Vaillant*, whose honesty and skill as a naturalist he described in glowing terms. In April 1823 he read a paper to the Wernerian Society on an "Inquiry into the origin and characteristic differences of the native races inhabiting the extra-tropical part of southern Africa", which was published in the society's Transactions for that year. He divided the inhabitants of the Cape Colony into three distinct groups on anatomical grounds: European colonists, "Kaffirs", and the Hottentots and Bushmen, The paper was probably the first to deal with the population of South Africa in a scientific manner and was later also published in French and German. He was furthermore the first scientist known to have taken Bantu skulls to Europe for anatomical study.

At the end of 1822 Knox was put on half-pay, which ceased in November 1831, and in 1824 he married Mary Russell. That same year he submitted a proposal to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for the formation of a Museum of Comparative Anatomy. He worked in this museum as its conservator until 1831. During these years he produced many publications on a variety of scientific subjects, several of which were partly based on his observations in South Africa. Examples are, "On the mode of growth, reproduction and structure of the poison fangs in serpents" (Transactions of the Wernerian Society, 1824) and "Observations on the statistics of hernia..." (Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 1835). However, his most important contribution to knowledge dealt with the comparative anatomy of the eye. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1823, and soon thereafter became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Knox began to teach anatomy at the University of Edinburgh in 1826, attracting many students. However, his reputation was ruined when in 1828 it became publicly known that he had bought a cadaver from two murderers for dissection. Shunned by his colleagues and students, he resigned in 1831. Unable to find a suitable post he delivered lectures on various topics in anthropology in a number of towns in England. One of these, delivered in London in 1847, dealt with a small group of bushmen that had been brought to England for exhibition. His lectures led to the publication of The races of men (1850), which dealt also with the population groups of South Africa. It was an important text on racial anatomy at the time, in which he sought to establish links between anatomical differences and national characters. Other works by him published around this time were Great artists and great anatomists; a biographical and philosophical study (1852), A manual of artistic anatomy, for the use of sculptors, painters and amateurs (1852), Fish and fishing in the lone glens of Scotland; with a history of the propagation, growth and metamorphoses of the salmon (1854), and Man, his structure and physiology, popularly explained and demostrated (1857).

Finally, in 1856, he obtained a post as pathalogical anatomist to the Cancer Hospital at Brompton, London. In 1860 he was elected a Fellow of the Ethnological Society of London and in 1862 became honorary curator of its museum. However, he died towards the end of that year, aged seventy-one.

List of sources:
Dubow, S. Illicit union: Scientific racism in modern South Africa. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995.

Kirby, P.R. Robert Knox and his South African research. South African Medical Journal, 1940, Vol. 14(13), pp. 254-261.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Philip, P. British residents at the Cape, 1795-1819. Cape Town: D. Philip, 1981.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Compiled by: C. Plug