S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Smith, Prof Sir Grafton Elliot (palaeo-anthropology)

Born: 15 August 1871, Grafton, New South Wales, Australia.
Died: 1937, Place not known.

G. Elliot Smith, anatomist and anthropologist, studied medicine at the University of Sydney and qualified as Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Master in Surgery (ChM) in 1892. In 1895 he was awarded the degree Doctor of Medicine (MD) with a thesis on the anatomy of the brain of non-placental mammals. He proceeded to England in 1896, where he was known mainly by the surname Elliot Smith. In Cambridge he conducted research at St John's College, University of Cambridge, publishing many anatomical papers on the brains of both living and extinct species, while also studying human palaeopathology. He was awarded the degrees Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Master of Arts (MA) in 1898 and 1903 respectively. From 1900 to 1909 he was the first chairholder of anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine and investigated the brains of Egyptian mummies. He was the first researcher to X-ray a mummy.

In 1909 Smith was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Manchester and ten years later Professor of Anatomy at University College, London, where he remained until his retirement in 1936. He was the leading expert on the brain during these years, but also a controversial figure, often in conflict with anthropologists and historians over his published views on topics such as the ancient Egyptian civilisation, the diffusion of culture, early humans, human evolution, the origins of civilisation and European history. He supported the view that humans originated in Europe, rather than in Asia or Africa, and that human culture had originated in ancient Egypt and from there diffused throughout the world. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1907 and was knighted in 1934. In 1912 he received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, in 1930 the Honorary Gold Medal of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1936 the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Smith studied an endocranial cast of Boskop man, skeletal remains found some 16 km north of Potchefstroom in 1913, and reported that the skull included both Neanderthaloid and Sapient human features. His findings were published in 'Note upon the endocranial cast obtained from the ancient calvaria found at Boskop, Transvaal' in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (1917-1918, Vol. 6, pp. 15-18).

List of sources:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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

Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1917-1918, Vol. 6, paper by G. Elliot Smith.

Who was who, Vol. 3, 2nd ed. London: Adam & Black, 1967.

Compiled by: C. Plug