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Biographical entry Reid, Robert William (1851 - 1939)

MRCS 9 June 1881; FRCS 9 June 1881; MB Aberdeen 1873; MD 1875; LLD.

14 May 1851
Auchindoir on Donside, Aberdeenshire
28 July 1939


Born 14 May 1851 at the Manse of Auchindoir on Donside, Aberdeenshire, the sixth child and third son of the Rev William Reid and Elizabeth Mary Scott, his wife. He attended the village school at Lumsden and afterwards for a few months in 1866 the Aberdeen Grammar School, and then went to King's College, Aberdeen. He began his medical studies at Marischal College in 1868 and his interest in anatomy soon attracted the notice of Professor Sir John Struthers. He served as house physician at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and at the end of his term of office he became anatomical assistant to the professor. Thenceforward he devoted his life to anatomical teaching and study. In 1873 he was appointed demonstrator of anatomy in the medical school of St Thomas's Hospital, London, and in 1877 he lectured on anatomy and was thus the first in London to devote himself wholly to the subject. In 1887 he took a leading part in founding the Anatomical Society, of which he was president in 1910-12.

Professor Struthers retired from the chair of Regius professor of anatomy at Aberdeen in the autumn of 1889 and Reid was called to fill his place, a position he held until September 1925. He represented the University of Aberdeen on the General Medical Council 1896-1901, and was president of the section of anatomy and physiology at the Aberdeen meeting of the British Medical Association in 1914. He died unmarried at 37 Albyn Place, Aberdeen on 28 July 1939, where for many years he had been tenderly cared for by his sister and his niece, Miss Margaret F Pirie. Reid came of an old north Scottish family, which had contributed distinguished representatives to the Church and the Army. One of his brothers was Major-General Sir Alexander John Reid and another was Dr William Reid, medical superintendent of the Aberdeen Royal Asylum.

Robert Reid himself was fortunate in his opportunity, for he began his life's work when anatomical enquiry had come under the dominance of Darwin and when cerebral surgery, then in its infancy, was requiring anatomical landmarks for guidance in operations. David Ferrier and Gerald F Yeo in the Physiological Laboratory at King's College, London, from 1870 onwards were working at cerebral localization in monkeys. Victor Horsley, Charles Ballance, William Macewen, and Rickman Godlee were beginning to operate on the human brain. It was soon found that, using the small trephines then employed, it was necessary to have some external landmarks as a guide to the principal convolutions and sulci. Reid enquired into the matter and in 1884 published his paper in the Lancet, 1884, 2, 539: "Observations on the relation of the principal fissures and convolutions of the cerebrum to the outer surface of the scalp". The paper, which soon became a classic, he introduced by saying: "What I propose to do is to show that by taking large and easily felt landmarks on the head and drawing from them certain lines, these lines will indicate accurately enough for all practical purposes the position of the principal sulci, and by applying the one inch trephine to the skull with the centre pin on the line we can expose the fissure in any part of its course. The landmarks which can be easily felt on the outside of the scalp are the glabella or depression between the two nasal eminences, the external occipital protuberance, the superior curved line of the occipital bone, the parietal eminence, the posterior border of the mastoid process, the depression just in front of the external auditory meatus, the external angular process of the frontal bone, the frontal part of the temporal ridge, and the supraorbital notch. We shall also suppose that the base line, from which all perpendicular lines are drawn, runs through the lowest part of the infra-orbital margin and the middle of the external auditory meatus." The line was found to be of great practical use and "Reid's base line" was known far and wide.

Reid did much good work at Aberdeen. He reorganized the anatomical department, founded the teaching of embryology, introducing its study by the use of x-rays, and elaborated the anthropological museum. In 1896 he installed a method of making measurements and records of the physique of his students. The record contains exact measurements and details of growth of 2,000 students drawn from the population of North-East Scotland, the results being published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute for 1923 and 1924. They show that the Aberdonian comes of Scandinavian stock and has little or no connexion with the Mediterranean race or with the dark-haired, round-headed Alpine stock. He also made valuable investigations into the relationships of the bones found in several ancient tombs in Aberdeenshire. He published in 1912 an illustrated catalogue of the anthropological museum at Marischal College, and in 1924 added an illustrated catalogue of specimens from prehistoric interments in Scotland. The Reid lectureship to further these researches was established in 1934.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 29 July 1939, p 14b, and 1 August 1939, p 14b; Lancet, 1939, 2, 346, with portrait and p 403; Brit med J 1939, 2, 371; J Anat 1939-40, 74, 409, with portrait; information given by his niece, Miss Margaret F. Pixie; personal know┬Čledge. The "Base line" paper is reprinted, with an almost contemporary photograph, in Brit J Surg 1936, 23, 697].

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