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Biographical entry Clark, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros (1895 - 1971)

Kt 1955; MRCS July 1917; FRCS 1920; LRCP 1917; DSc London 1928; MA Oxon 1934; Hon DSc Durham 1949; Hon MD Melbourne 1952; Hon LLD Malaya 1953; FRS 1934.

5 June 1895
Hemel Hempstead
28 June 1971


Born on 5 June at Hemel Hempstead the second of the three sons of the Rev Travers Clark, he was a grandson of Frederick Le Gros Clark, President of the College in 1874, member of Council from 1864 to 1879 and surgeon to St Thomas's Hospital. For his education Le Gros Clark went to Blundell's School, Tiverton, proceeding to St Thomas's Hospital in 1912 where he gained an Entrance Scholarship, the William Tite Scholarship and the Musgrove Scholarship. Qualifying with the Conjoint Diploma in July 1917, he entered the RAMC immediately and without serving a house appointment, as was the usual pattern at the time. He served in France until the end of the war, an experience which affected his outlook profoundly, as it did that of many of his contemporaries. On demobilisation he returned to St Thomas's to take up an appointment as a house surgeon to Sir Cuthbert Wallace, during which period he passed the Final examination and was admitted a Fellow.

Intending to take up a career in experimental anatomy, he decided first to gain experience as a practising surgeon and, with this end in view, obtained the post of Principal Medical Officer in Sarawak, Borneo, at that time governed by Rajah Brooke, an appointment which offered opportunities for both practical surgery in the most general sense and for the investigation of the anatomy of the primates of that country in particular the rare Spectral Tarsier and the tree shrew, a research stimulated by Sir Grafton Elliot Smith FRS, then Professor of Anatomy at University College, as shedding light on the evolution of the more primitive primates. Shortly after his arrival one of his native dressers developed a perforated duodenal ulcer and, the patient willingly consenting, he operated in spite of the tearful entreaties of the relatives to stay his hand. A speedy and uninterrupted convalescence followed and this so impressed the natives as in every respect miraculous that from then on he could do no wrong. As a mark of their esteem his shoulders were tattooed with the insignia of the Sea Dyaks. Writing in 1961 in retrospect he described this period as probably the best three years of his life culminating in the meeting with his future wife who, with her mother, was on a visit to Sarawak.

On his return to England he became for a short time a demonstrator of anatomy at St Thomas's under Professor F G Parsons FRCS, before proceeding to St Bartholomew's in 1924 as reader in anatomy, the post being elevated to that of a professorship in 1927. In 1929 he again returned to his old school, St Thomas's, succeeding Parsons as professor, and in 1934 he accepted an invitation to fill the chair of Dr Lee's Professorship in Oxford which position he held until his retirement in 1962. While in Oxford he was elected a Fellow of Hertford College.

On his return to England in 1923 he had continued his work on primate evolution, publishing a series of papers in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society which were summarised in the book Early forerunners of man published in 1934. As a result he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1934. His early work on the tree shrews led him to the opinion that they should be classified as primates rather than as insectivores, and a survey of the anatomy of the brain caused him to investigate the relationship of the thalamus to the cerebral cortex, tracing the paths of visual stimulation to cortical areas. A further study of the anatomy of the hypothalamus followed from this, as did that of the anatomy of colour vision with the publication in 1936 of Morphological aspects of the hypothalamus. His interest in primate evolution was again stimulated at the end of the second war by the discoveries of fossil primate remains in South and East Africa by Professor Dart and Dr Brown, and Le Gros Clark went out to determine the importance of the finds at first hand. In 1955 his book The fossil evidence of human evolution was published, the British Museum having produced his The history of the primates in 1949. After the discoveries of Dr Leakey in Africa in 1959 a further more comprehensive book The anatomy of man was published. He was also intimately concerned in the unmasking of the 'Piltdown Man' fraud in 1953.

As a teacher of anatomy Le Gros Clark was outstanding and influenced profoundly the status of his subject, changing it from the routine repetition of the minutiae of topographical anatomy to a study of function and its relevance to cell biology and embryology. His book The tissues of the body, published in 1939 and his contribution to a reformed textbook, Cunningham, edition of 1943, had a useful influence on anatomical teaching.

As he and his wife had together sponsored causes directed to world peace, he was greatly distressed by the outbreak of the second world war, but nevertheless he helped to organise a team of young men for research work connected with the war effort. After the war he bent all his efforts to the creation of a new and modern Department of Anatomy at Oxford, and in 1950 was president of the first post-war International Anatomical Conference held at Oxford. The new department was finally opened in 1959 and formed an occasion for the presentation to him of his bust by Epstein. In 1968 he published his autobiography Chant of pleasant exploration.

He was a member of the Livery of the Salters Company, of which he was Master in 1954, and for which a portrait of him by Anna Zinkeisen was commissioned. The portrait shows him holding in his hand a book by an early English traveller to Borneo, opened at the title page A voyage to Borneo. He was knighted in 1955 and in 1961 was elected President of the British Association.

For the College he was Arris and Gale lecturer in 1932, received its Triennial Prize in 1947, was Hunterian Professor in 1934 and 1945, and was an examiner in his subject, as he was also for the Universities of London, Durham, Wales and Bristol. He was for a time a member of the Medical Research Council, and editor of the Journal of anatomy, and was an honorary member of several foreign scientific societies.

His first wife Freda, née Giddey, died in 1963 leaving him with two daughters. In 1964 he married Violet, widow of Dr Leonard Brown, an old friend.

He was an unaffected, simple, sincere man, always ready to help and advise the young. A very characteristic manner of rather hesitant speech in no way detracted from his brilliance as a lecturer.

He died quite suddenly on 28 June 1971 while on a visit to the home of a lifelong friend from his student days.


Books mentioned above and numerous papers in Phil Trans Roy Soc and other scientific journals on neurology, anatomy, anthropology and palaeontology.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 29 June 1971, p17 and tribute by G W Harris and A G M Waddell; Brit med J 1971, 2, 118 by AGMW and tribute by Lord Zuckerman].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England