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Biographical entry Symington, Johnson (1851 - 1924)

MRCS July 24th 1877; FRCS (elected as a Member of twenty years' standing) April 8th 1915; MB CM Edin (1st class honours) 1877; MD (Thesis Gold Medal) 1885; LLD Belfast 1919; FRS 1903.

25 February 1924


Educated at Taunton and at the University of Edinburgh, and after graduating with brilliance was appointed an Extramural Lecturer on Anatomy at Minto House. Not only was he a first-rate teacher of anatomy, but he pursued anatomical research and published a number of important papers in the Journal of Anatomy (1878, xii et seq.), especially on the anatomy of children. His thesis on "The Topographical Anatomy of the Child" was a valuable contribution to the later developmental history of the parts and organs of the human body. The endocranial, endodural arachnoid, and cerebral casts made by him were of outstanding merit and were an important contribution to the improvement of prehistoric craniology, whilst his papers on the forms and relations of the viscera were of great importance. His descriptive account of the brain in the eleventh edition of Quain's Anatomy was founded on comparative and developmental studies. In 1894 he published The Cerebral Convolutions in the Primates and extended his observations in neurology to the brains of Monotremes and Marsupials. The Cerebral Commissures in Non-placental Mammals (1894) corrected some current misapprehensions about the corpus callosum. He also made a special study of the organ of Jacobson in Monotremes and Marsupials, and was the first to give a complete and accurate description of the organ in Ornithorhyncus and to establish affinities with its representative in Reptiles. Two papers on the marsupial larynx were issued by him in 1899. He was appointed in 1893 to the Chair of Anatomy at Queen's College, Belfast, in succession to Peter Redfern (qv).

Symington delivered the second Struthers Lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, the first lecturer having been Sir Arthur Keith. In 1903 he was President of the Anthropological Section of the British Association at the Southport Meeting, and was elected FRS. From 1904-1906 he was President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. At one time or another he was Examiner in Anatomy at the Universities of London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Glasgow, and Dublin, and for the Indian Medical Service. He was Vice-President of the Anatomical Section at the Edinburgh Meeting of the British Medical Association in 1898, and President of the Pathological Section at the Oxford Meeting in 1901.

At Belfast Symington stimulated the younger men to original work, and by contributions aided the Medical Societies. Of inspiring personality, he excelled as a counsellor and in administrative capacities. Shortly after his appointment to the Professorship of Anatomy at Belfast he was elected on the Governing Body of the College; in 1901 he succeeded Professor Purser as Registrar, and was one of the Hon Secretaries of the Better Equipment Fund which did so much to improve the College by a new set of buildings for the Medical Faculty. On the Academic Council and numerous Committees he served with enthusiasm and energy. He was one of the seven Commissioners appointed to frame the statutes of the Queen's University, Belfast, under the Irish University Act of 1908.

In 1918 illness compelled him to retire from his professorship and active work. The Senate of Queen's University upon the occasion passed a resolution "recognizing his magnificent work for the University and for the Science of Anatomy". His old pupils in Belfast and Edinburgh raised a fund to endow a Symington Prize to be awarded for research in anatomy by junior anatomists. The first award of the prize was made by the Anatomical Society about a year before his death. He died in Edinburgh on Feb 24th, 1924, leaving a daughter, his wife having predeceased him.


Joint-editor of Quain's Anatomy, 10th ed, 1890-5, ii, pt. 2, and iii, pt. 4; 11th ed, 1908, iii, pt. 1, 2.
The Topographical Anatomy of the Child, fol., 14 plates, 1887.
Series of papers on anatomy of the child in Edin Med Jour, Edinburgh, 1885-1893.
Atlas of Topographical Anatomy of the Head, Neck, Thorax, Abdomen and Pelvis, fol., 27 plates, Belfast, 1917.
Atlas of Skiagrams illustrating the Development of Teeth (with J. C. RANKIN), 4to, 12 plates, Edinburgh, 1908.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Jour of Anat, 1924, lviii, 275, with portrait and bibliography. Proc Roy Soc, xcvi, p. xxxii].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England