Elliot Smith, Grafton

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Elliot Smith, Grafton

(b. Grafton, Australia, 15 August 1871; d. Broadstairs, England, 1 January 1937)


Elliot Smith was the son of Stephen Sheldrick Smith, a schoolteacher who had emigrated from England to Australia, and of his wife, Mary Jane Evans. At school he was interested in both physics and medicine, and he dated his interest in the brain to the age of ten, when he dissected a shark. He read medicine at the University of Sydney, graduated M.B., Ch.M. in 1892, and took some clinical posts while beginning research on brains. In 1895 Elliot Smith was awarded an M.D. and gold medal for a thesis on the anatomy and histology of the cerebrum of the nonplacental mammal. In 1896 he went to England, where he continued research for a Ph.D. at Cambridge and in 1899 was elected a fellow of St. John’s College. He was also asked to help in preparing a catalog of brains of Reptilia and Mammalia in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons; this was published in 1902.

Elliot Smith was invited to be professor of anatomy in the new Government School of Medicine in Cairo and went there in 1900 to create an active department and continue his neurological work. In spite of an early determination to resist the lure of Egyptology, he became interested when he was asked to make anatomical investigation of old skeletons and mummies, particularly when there were remains of soft parts, including brain. These investigations led to the Catalogue of the Royal Mummies in the Cairo Museum, published in 1912. In 1907 he was elected to fellowship of the Royal Society and was appointed anatomical adviser to the Archaeological Survey of Nubia, which involved examination and description of thousands of skeletons excavated before the Aswan Dam was raised. The report was published in 1910.

Returning to England in 1909 to occupy the chair of anatomy at Manchester, Elliot Smith continued to work on both neurology and the Nubian remains and developed his theory of the diffusion of culture, which has never been generally accepted by anthropologists. He was one of several experts deceived by the Piltdown skull. During World War I, Elliot Smith worked for short periods in hospitals and did research on shell shock, and in 1919 he transferred to the chair of anatomy at University College, London, where he emphasized the importance of studying human biology with its psychological and cultural aspects, and also the history of medicine. He traveled frequently to the United States, China, and Australia, mainly on anthropological work, and trained several assistants who were later prominent anthropologists. He married Kathleen Macredie in 1900, and they had three sons. He was knighted in 1900, and hey had three sons. He was knighted in 1934 and retired in 1936.

The weight of Elliot Smith’s work lies in his anatomical studies. His detailed comparative anatomical descriptions of the brain of reptiles and nonplacental and placental mammals contributed to the study of evolution as well to neurology, and he related the development of the visual area of the brain to arboreal life on primates. His descriptions of Egyptian mummies were the first to be so comprehensive and so detailed; many of them are not yet superseded.

Some of his manuscripts are at the University of Manchester, and a bronze head, done by A. H. Gerrard in 1937, is in the Medical Sciences Library of University College, London.


The most comprehensive biography, by Warren R. Dawson, forms the longest section of Warren R. Dawson, ed., Sir Grafton Elliot Smith: A Biographical Record, by his colleagues (London, 1938); the volume also contains a 434-item bibliography of Elliot Smith’s publications and refers to a collection of his letters held by Dawson.

There is an entry by H. A. Harris in the Dictionary of National Biography, Supplement 1931–1940 (London, 1949), 816–817, with a list of obituaries, including that by J. T. Wilson in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Societyof London, 2 (1938), 323–333. Volume 71 of the Journal of Anatomy is a memorial volume to Elliot Smith, who had for a time assisted in editing it; included is a bibliography of his anatomical writings. A more recent assessment is A.A. Abbie, “Sir Grafton Elliot Smith,” in Bulletin of the Post Graduate Committee in Medicine, University of Sydney, 15 (1959), 101–150. Abbie includes a bibliography strong in biographical material and refers to a valuable collection on Elliot Smith in the Sydney University department of anatomy.

Diana M. Simpkins