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Biographical entry Keith, Sir Arthur (1866 - 1955)

Kt 1921; FRS 1913; MRCS 10 May 1894; FRCS 4 June 1894; LRCP 1894; MB Aberdeen 1888; MD 1894; FRS Ed 1930; FRSNZ 1939; LLD Aberdeen 1911, Birmingham 1924; DSc Durham 1921, Manchester 1923, Oxford 1930.

Machar, Aberdeenshire
7 January 1955
Downe, Kent
Anatomist, Anthropologist and Conservator of the Hunterian Museum


Born at Old Machar, Aberdeenshire, fourth son and sixth of the ten children of John Keith, a farmer, and Jessie Macpherson his wife. He was educated at Gordon's College and Aberdeen University (Marischal College), where he graduated with first-class honours in 1888. After postgraduate study at Leipzig, he spent three years in Siam as physician to a rubber company with a commission to collect botanical specimens for Kew, and he also made extensive study of the muscles of catarrhine monkeys. The thesis based on this research earned him the MD at Aberdeen, with the Struthers anatomy medal. He took the Fellowship the same year while working under G D Thane at University College, London, and in 1895 was appointed to teach anatomy at the London Hospital Medical College, where he worked with marked success till 1908. He was an extremely popular and efficient teacher, wrote his famous textbook on Human Embryology (1898, 6th edition 1948), and began extensive research in teratology, particularly on the anatomy and malformations of the heart. In the course of this work he was the first to describe, with his pupil Martin Flack, the sino-atrial node or pace-maker of the human heart (Lancet1906, 2, 359; Journal of Anatomy 1907, 41, 172).

Keith was appointed Conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the College in 1908, and began to revive the somewhat somnolent scientific side of the College's work by his brilliant lectures and popular scientific writings, and by attracting surgeons, anatomists and anthropologists to work with him for shorter or longer periods in the Museum and its laboratories. During the 1920s he became a one-man "court of appeal" for physical anthropologists from all over the world, while his journalism made his name familiar among the lay public, for he was one of the last and greatest of the Victorian popularisers of science in the tradition of Huxley. His efforts received warm encouragement from Lord Moynihan, who became President in 1926. With the financial support of Sir Buckston Browne FRCS, Lord Moynihan founded at Keith's instigation the College's Research Institute at Downe, where Keith and Browne had already persuaded the British Association to form the Darwin Museum at Charles Darwin's former home, Down House. Keith retired from the Conservatorship in 1933 and was appointed first Master of the Buckston Browne Farm, as the new Institute was named at his wish.

Keith was elected FRS in 1913 in recognition of his anatomical researches, but the last forty years of his life were devoted to anthropology. He published The Antiquity of Man in 1915, with an enlarged edition in 1925 and a supplementary volume of New Discoveries in 1931. He was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1914-17 and of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1927, and Rector of Aberdeen University 1930-33. He was also active in the Royal Institution as Fullerian Professor, honorary secretary, and a Manager. His children's lectures there formed a popular book on Engines of the Human Body (1919, 2nd edition 1925), while another course of semi-popular lectures, given at the College in 1917-18, was published as Menders of the Maimed (1919, reprinted 1952), this comprises a history and critique of the development of orthopaedic surgery.

Keith married on 21 December 1899 Celia Caroline daughter of Thomas Gray, a painter; Keith and his wife formed a small collection of watercolours by leading artists, which he bequeathed among his friends. There were no children, and Lady Keith died at Downe on 13 October 1934, soon after they had settled there. They had formerly lived at 17 Aubert Park, Highbury in North London, renting a country cottage in Kent (See St Thomas's Hospital Gazette 1957, 55, 199-201 with a photograph of Keith's cottage, Mann's Place).

During his years at Downe (1934-55), besides supervising and helping the young men engaged on surgical research at the Buckston Browne Farm, Keith continued active, writing many semi-popular articles and several substantial books, mostly on Darwinism and evolution. He also compiled a long and very interesting Autobiography (1950) from the diaries which he subsequently bequeathed to the College Library.

Keith received many academic honours, including LLD Aberdeen 1911, DSc Durham 1921, Manchester 1923, LLD Birmingham 1924, DSc Oxford 1930, FRS Edinburgh 1930, FRS New Zealand 1939, and was an Honorary Fellow of the Association of Surgeons, the Medical Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the New York Academy of Science, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom. He was knighted in 1921. The College, under the presidency of Lord Brock, held a special meeting to celebrate the centenary of Keith's birth in 1966.

Keith died at Downe on 7 January 1955 aged 88. Besides books, papers and some fine silver bequeathed to the College, he left £500 for the upkeep of Down House.

Keith's Autobiography provides the fullest account of his life. A bibliography of his voluminous writings, including much of his journalism, is available in the College Library; the more important items selected from it are listed in the two fullest memoirs: (1) by Sir Wilfrid LeGros Clark in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 1955, 1, 145-162, and (2) by J C Brash and A J E Cave in Journal of Anatomy 1955, 89, 403-418.

Keith's portraits are described in the Catalogue (1960) of the Portraits at the College, and photographs at various ages are reproduced in his Autobiography.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England