S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Drennan, Prof Matthew Robertson (physical anthropology, human anatomy, archaeology)

Born: 22 August 1885, Galston, Ayrshire, United Kingdom.
Died: 27 July 1965, Cape Town, South Africa.

Matthew Robertson Drennan, anatomist and physical anthropologist, was the son of Robert Drennan, farmer, and his wife Jeannie Herries, born Robertson. After completing his schooling in Ayr, Scotland, he qualified as Master of Arts (MA) at the University of Edinburgh in 1907, having gained honours certificates in both classical and modern subjects and the Niel Arnot prize for natural philosophy. Continuing his studies in medicine at the same institution he was awarded several medals and bursaries, and obtained the degrees Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Bachelor of Surgery (ChB) with distinction in 1910. After graduating he was appointed resident surgeon in gynaecology at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, and in 1911 became senior demonstrator in anatomy in the University of Edinburgh. He qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1913, with advanced anatomy and embryology as his specialities. That same year he emigrated to South Africa to become a lecturer in anatomy at the South African College, Cape Town, under Professor R.B. Thomson*. Early in 1914 he resigned to start a general practice at Aliwal North, but early in 1915, following the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), joined the South African Medical Corps. During service in German South West Africa (now Namibia) he contracted enteric fever and was invalided to Cape Town. After recovery he served in local military hospitals for some time.

Drennan returned to the South African College (which became the University of Cape Town in 1918) in 1916 as acting professor of anatomy during Professor Thomson's absence on medical military service, until his appointment as professor of anatomy in 1919. He held this post until his retirement in 1955.

Drennan was an able and engaging teacher who inspired many of South Africa's future medical professionals. He became internationally known for his contributions to human and comparative anatomy, neurology, physical anthropology, human palaeontology, and medical education, in the form of over 70 scientific papers. In addition he wrote several textbooks for undergraduate students, the titles all beginning with A short course on. The subjects included human embryology (192?), physical anthropology (1924, 1930, 1937), human osteology (1928, 1944), the mechanism of voice and speech (1929), and the anatomy of the abdomen and pelvis (1944). Another of his books, Gogga Brown, the life story of Alfred Brown, South Africa's hermit naturalist (1939) was based mainly on Brown's* own journal. His anatomical and related papers included "Some studies on the anatomy of the [ostrich] heart" (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1926), "The pudendal parts of the South African bush race" (Ibid, 1926), "The dentition of a Bushman tribe" (Annals of the South African Museum, 1929), and "Finger mutilation in the Bushmen" (Bantu Studies, 1937).

In the field of physical anthropology Drennan was mainly interested in how morphological features were affected by race and evolution. In 1925 he recognised that the cranium of Boskop man, the first fossil skull found in South Africa (in 1913) was comparable to that of contemporary Khoi (Hottentot) people. Three years later he discovered a skull and femur of Neanderthal character, termed australoid to indicate its similarity to Australian types, in the sand dunes of the Cape Flats (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1929). In 1931 he found that the pre-Bushman skull found near Plettenberg Bay by W.G. Sharples*, showed anatomically infantile features, a phenomenon known as pedomorphism. This finding was reported in "Pedomorphism in the pre-Bushman skull" (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1931). He also found that skeletal remains from a prehistoric gold mine in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were closely related to the living Bushmen (South African Journal of Science, 1932). Other insights into the genetic constitution of the Khoisan people resulted from his study of the archaeology and human remains of the Oakhurst shelter near George (Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1937), and his series of papers describing the skull found at Elandsfontein, near Saldanha Bay (for which he proposed the name Homo Saldanensis) and the associated cultural artefacts (South African Journal of Science, 1953; Nature, 1953, 1955; American Anthropologist, 1954; American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1955). In other papers he described the Florisbad skull, found by Professor T.F. Dreyer* in the Free State (South African Journal of Science, 1935; Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1937). Over the years he assembled a splendid research collection of ancient and modern human skeletal remains which enabled him and his associates to study the skeletal anatomy and dentition of the Khoisan people.

Drennan was elected a Fellow of the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society in 1911, a Fellow of the Odontological Society of South Africa in 1934, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1927. He was an active member of the Cape of Good Hope (Western) Branch of the British Medical Association, serving as its president in 1922. In 1928 he became a member of the first South African Medical Council. He played an active role in the South African Archaeological Society and was elected its president in 1956. The previous year the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland made him an honorary life member. He became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1928, served as president of Section E (which included anthropology and archaeology) in 1936 and again in 1946, and in 1957 the association awarded him its South Africa Medal (gold) in recognition of his distinguished services to science and the community. He was a trustee of the South African Museum, Cape Town, for many years, a member of the Historical Monuments Commission from 1935 to 1960, and an active role player in several other civic organisations. The University of the Witwatersrand awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree in 1958.

Drennan was a kind man with an engaging personality, loved by students and colleagues alike. The impact of his personality is clear from the many eminent positions he held in both scientific and cultural organisations. He was married in 1920 to Susannah Elizabeth Maryna de Wet, with whom he had a daughter.

List of sources:

Application for the lectureship in anatomy in the South African College, Cape Town. http://www.digitalcollections.lib.uct.ac.za/application-lectureship-anatomy-south-african-college-cape-town-copies-testimonials-favour-matthew

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 5, 1987.

Holm, S.E. Bibliography of South African pre- and proto-historic archaeology. Pretoria: Van Schaik, 1966.

Medical Journal of South Africa, 1926, Vol. 22, papers by Drennan.

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

Obituary: Professor Matthew Robertson Drennan (1885-1965). South African Journal of Science, 1966, Vol. 62, pp. 122-125.

Phillips, H. The University of Cape Town, 1918-1948: The formative years. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1993.

Ritchie, W. The history of the South African College, 1829-1918. Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1918.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Journal of Science, 1930-1937, Vol. 27-34, papers by Drennan.

South African who's who, 1923/4, 1927/8, 1931/2, 1947/8, 1955.

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

Tobias, P.V. History of physical anthropology in South Africa. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 1985, Vol. 28, pp. 1-52.

Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1931, Vol. 19 and 1937/8, Vol. 25, papers by Drennan.

Compiled by: C. Plug