Keith, Arthur

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Keith, Arthur

(b. Persley, Aberdeen, Scotland, 5 February 1866; d Downe, Kent, England, 7 January 1955)

anatomy, anthropology.

Arthur Keith was the fourth son of John Keith, a small farmer, and the former Jessie Macpherson, He received a bachelor of medicine degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1888 and the following year went as physician to a goldmining project in Siam. The mine failed and many laborers died of malaria, but Keith collected plants for Kew Gardens, dissected monkeys, and became interested in racial types. Returning to Britain in 1892, he studied anatomy under G. D. Thane at University College, London, and under R. W. Reid at Aberdeen, where he won the first Struthers prize (1893) with a demonstration of the ligaments of man and ape. In 1894 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and received his M.D. degree from Aberdeen, but his thesis on primate muscles was not published. During 1895 Keith worked under Wilhelm His at Leipzig. In 1899 he married Celia Gray, who died in 1934.

Keith was appointed senior demonstrator of anatomy at the London Hospital in 1895, and became head of the department in 1899. He was an excellent teacher and inspired many students to research. He edited two anatomy textbooks and also wrote his successful Human Embryology and Morphology (1902). He made extensive research on malformations, particularly those of the heart, on which he was helped by James Mackenzie; and with his pupil Martin Flack he first described in 1906 the sinoatrial node, or pacemaker, of the heart. This observation was of much value of cardiology, especially when heart surgery was developed forty years later. Keith resigned from the hospital in 1908 to become conservator of the Royal College of Surgeons Museum, where a vast and somewhat heterogeneous medical collection had grown round the nucleus of John Hunter’s museum of comparative anatomy and pathology. He revived the scientific side of the college’s work, gave stimulating demonstration-lectures, and encouraged surgeons and anatomists to use the museum; but there were then no students at the college and little facility for research.

Keith’s interest now reverted to anthropology. He had studied primate skulls in 1895 and had published An Introduction to the Study of Anthropoid Apes (London, 1897); he had also written a monograph, Man and Ape, which his publisher refused in 1900. In 1911 he published in London a short book, Ancient Types of Man, on the theme that the modern type was as old as the extinct primitive types. He followed this with The Antiquity of Man (1915), an anatomical survey of all important human fossil remains, which urged the same theme; he enlarged it in 1925 but “with diminishing conviction.” In New Discoveries (1931), Keith admitted that evidence really suggested that modern races arose from types already separate in the early Pleistocene. Between 1919 and 1939, when he completed his study of the Palestinian Stone Age remains, he published many reports on human fossils and became the principal arbiter in discussing them.

Keith believed that it was a curator’s first duty to make the resources of his museum available to research workers, and that a scientist ought to awaken the public to the message of his work and ideas. He thus became a successful popularizer in the tradition of Huxley, and published two semipopular books in 1919. Engines of the Human Body offered “fresh interpretations” of structure and function; Keith recorded that it met “fair success, but was soon out of date.” His Menders of the Maimed was a historical critique of orthopedic surgery, combined with an exposition of the natural powers of living bone.

Keith was active in several societies, becoming president of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1914–1917), president of the Anatomical Society (1918) and editor of the Journal of Anatomy (1916–1936), honorary secretary of the Royal Institution (1922–1926), and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1927). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1913 and was knighted in 1921.

At Keith’s instigation and with the financial support of Buckston Browne, a retired surgeon, the Royal College of Surgeons founded in 1932 a research institute at Downe, the country village south of London where Darwin had once lived; Keith was appointed the master of the new institute when he retired from the college in 1933, and held the post until his death in 1955 at the age of eighty-eight. During his twenty-one years at Downe, besides advising and inspiring successive young researchers there, Keith continued his work in anthropology and wrote his autobiography, a life of Darwin, and several books which sought to correlate the physical and moral evolution of man.


I. Original Works. Keith bequeathed his MSS, diaries, and other papers to the Royal College of Surgeons Library, London, which has a complete bibliography of his writings; the scientific writings are listed in the memoirs named below. His chief books and papers comprise Human Embryology and Morphology (London, 1902; 6th ed., 1948); “The Auriculo-Ventricular Bundle of the Human Heart,” in Lancet (1906), 2 , 359, written with Martin Flack; “The Form and Nature of the Muscular Connections Between the Primary Divisions of the Vertebrate Heart,” in Journal of Anatomy,41 (1907), 172. written with Flack; The Antiquity of Man (London, 1915; 2nd ed., 2 vols., 1925); The Engines of the Human Body (London, 1919; rev. ed., 1925); Menders of the Maimed (London, 1919; repr. 1952); New Discoveries Relating to the Antiquity of Man (London, 1931); “A New Theory of the origin of Modern Races of Mankind,” in Nature, 138 (1936), 194; The Stone Age of Mount Carmel—the Fossil Human Remains (Oxford, 1939), written with T. D. McCown; An Autobiography (London, 1950); Darwin Revalued (London, 1955).

II. Secondary Literature. For two informative memoirs, see W. Le Gros Clark, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society,1 (1955), 145–162; and J. C. Brash and A. J. E. Cave, in Journal of Anatomy,89 (1955), 403–418.

William Lefanu

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