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Biographical entry Parsons, Frederick Gymer (1863 - 1943)

MRCS 27 January 1886; FRCS 13 June 1889; DSc (Anthropology) London 1929; LRCP 1886; FSA.

12 November 1863
11 March 1943
Thame, Oxfordshire
Anatomist and Anthropologist


Born 12 November 1863 at 5 Westcombe Villas, Blackheath, SE, son of Thomas Cox Parsons, silk broker, and Lucy Susannah Kilvert, his wife. He was educated at St Thomas's Hospital, where he won the Grainger scholarship and became demonstrator of anatomy, lecturer (1886 to 1899) and for thirty years (1899-1929) University of London professor of anatomy and director of the anatomical department. After qualifying he had served for a time as a ship's surgeon and practised privately, but found his true bent in academic work. He was one of the group of anatomists who towards the close of the nineteenth century brought the teaching of anatomy in London to equal or excel the famous tradition of Edinburgh. He was a member of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland from 1886 and served the offices of secretary 1895-98, treasurer 1903-08, and president 1912-14, and in February 1898 was appointed one of the Society's trustees. He was secretary of the Society's Collective Investigation Committee 1894-99, and served on its Basel Nomina Anatomica Committee 1913-14 and again after the first world war. When he died he was the Society's oldest member.

Parsons took an active part in the administration and improvement of medical education. He was for a time lecturer on biology at St Thomas's and lectured also at the London School of Medicine for Women. He examined in anatomy for the universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, London, and Oxford, and for many other bodies including the Society of Apothecaries, during forty years. In 1912 he collaborated with his friend William Wright, his "opposite number" at the London Hospital, in a dissecting manual of Practical anatomy. In this as in all his teaching he avoided cumbersome topographical detail. He was for fifty years secretary of the London Anatomical Committee, which saw to the proper supply of anatomical material for the schools. He also collaborated with Bertram C A Windle in his studies of comparative myology.

Parsons joined the Society of Apothecaries in 1898, served on its Court from 1936 till his death, and was Senior Warden in 1941. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1904), on whose Council he served frequently between 1910 and 1930 and was a vice-president 1920-23. Parsons took the keenest interest in all activities of St Thomas's Hospital and its Medical School and was a popular figure to many generations of students. He founded and for many years edited the hospital Gazette; he was secretary and treasurer of the amalgamated clubs and an active encourager of all athletic exercises. He was himself a keen small-boat yachtsman and for several years commodore of the United Hospitals Sailing Club. His life-long service and love of the Hospital found its expression in his detailed but very readable History of St Thomas's Hospital, published in three volumes 1932-34-36. His paper "St Thomas of London, the glorious martyr" was printed after his death, in the Gazette 1943, 41, 115.

Parsons' first interest was in human topographical anatomy; of his many studies those on the cervical fascia, the caecum, and the parotid gland were the most outstanding. His work was always comparative, and he published much in the Journal of Anatomy and the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Next he turned to more functional studies, and made a remarkable survey of the hyoid. At the Royal College of Surgeons he delivered two series of masterly Hunterian lectures: in 1898 on "The muscles of mammals with special relation to human myology", and in 1899 on "The joints of mammals contrasted with those of man". He did not undertake the exhaustive statistical measurements of the biometricians; he was prepared to submit his material for the use of mathematicians, but maintained that they approached anatomy with an abstract and lifeless outlook.

He gradually turned to anatomo-anthropological studies, publishing an extensive study of the modern English femur and clavicle; and was led on through the study of the excavated crania from Hythe (J Roy Anthrop Inst 1908) and Rothwell (Ibid, 1910) to a general survey of the characteristics of the Anglo-Saxons and their modern descendants. His work on the Long-Barrow Race appeared in 1920. During the first world war he studied German racial elements on prisoners of war, determining that the so-called "Nordic" element was small except on the coast and in the Rhine Valley. He was much interested in London's history and in 1927 published The earlier inhabitants of London, which aroused considerable interest. In the same year, 1927, he was president of the section of anthropology at the Leeds meeting of the British Association and spoke on "The Englishman of the future", asserting that increase in proportional height was an evolutionary process. In 1928 he issued an Atlas of sixty-six Anglo-Saxon skulls.

Parsons believed himself to be a typical "Saxon" Englishman, and he looked the part with his powerful build and red hair, as well as possessing many psychological characteristics often thought peculiarly English: a love of the sea and the country, undemonstrative courage, and blunt determination. He was fond of bicycling to the old towns of England and France, and was unperturbed by bad weather. Wood-carving was a favourite recreation. Parsons married Mary Parker, of Sywell House, Llandudno, North Wales, who died tragically with her daughter in 1915. After retirement in 1929 he lived at Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, interesting himself in local archaeology, but removed in 1940 to the Swan Inn, Thame, Oxfordshire, which he took over from John Fothergill the writer. He died there on 11 March 1943, aged 79, survived by two sons and a grandson. His principal writings have been detailed in the course of the life.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 16 March 1943, p 6f; Lancet, 1943, 1, 417; Nature, 1943, 151, 415, eulogy by F Wood Jones, FRCS; St Thos Hosp Gaz 1943, 41, 57, with portrait; Brit med J 1943, 1, 740, eulogy by A B Appleton, MD; J Anat 1943, 77, 311-313, with portrait and eulogy by W E Le Gros Clark; further information given by his son Henry H Parsons, and by L T Morton, librarian of St Thomas's Hospital].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England