Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot

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MB 1893 MSurgery 1893 MD 1895

Grafton Elliot Smith, anatomist and anthropologist, was the first student to obtain his MD by examination within the Faculty. He went on to be a world acclaimed Egyptologist and was the first person to use X-ray to examine a mummy. When the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered, Grafton was responsible for the examination of his preserved body. He was also a prolific writer able to attract a wide readership for his publications in the fields of Anatomy and Anthropology.

Grafton was born in Grafton, NSW in 1871. His first interest in science was sparked by a small textbook on physiology which his father brought home when he was about 10 years old. In his Fragments of an Autobiography, he writes of attending Professor Anderson Stuart’s course of instruction in physiology held at the School of Technology while he was still at a high school, and of his introduction there to Huxley’s Elementary Lessons In Physiology.

Studying for the senior public examination, he found that it was permissible to take 10 subjects and decided to take physiology and geometrical drawing in addition to his other eight subjects. Rather to the dismay of his teachers, the only medals awarded to students from his school were given to Grafton for the two subjects he had studied by himself. Though his father would have preferred him to enter an insurance office, the boy begged to be allowed to do a trial year at university, at the end of the year, obtaining the prizes for Physics and Natural History and in consequence of his good work, being awarded a bursary which took him through medical school.

On completing his studies in 1892, he spent a year in hospital work and in 1894, was appointed Demonstrator in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Sydney. One of his earliest papers, on The Cerebral Commissures of the Mammalia with special reference to the Monotremata and Marsupialia, was published that year in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. This was a remarkable achievement for a young man of 23, and was soon recognised as the work of a brilliant and original mind. In 1895, he became the first student to pass the MD examination at the University of Sydney, and in the following year was awarded the James King travelling scholarship which took him to Cambridge.

He spent three strenuous years in the Physiological Laboratory at Cambridge, also preparing about a dozen papers for scientific journals which established his reputation as an anatomist. In October 1897, the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology was re-organised and he was asked to take charge of “the central nervous system”.

In mid-1898 the British Medical Association awarded him a scholarship of 150 pounds a year, however, difficulties arose over the conditions attaching to the Grafton was obliged to take up a large amount of demonstrating and coaching. He had already begun his studies on the evolution and development of the brain, and was anxious to have time in which to do his research work. Fortunately, in November 1899 he was elected a Fellow of St John’s College, enabling him to go on with the work he loved.

When Professor Macalister offered him the Professorship of Anatomy at Cairo, Grafton immediately accepted. He liked his new surroundings and soon had the School of Anatomy in running order, also finding time to work on his descriptive catalogue of the brains in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and to examine and reported on a large mass of human remains collected by the archaeologists working in Egypt. This was the basis of his book The Ancient Egyptians, published 10 years later. Anthropology was henceforth to form an important part of his work.

In addition to his other studies, he became interested in the technique of mummification, spending much time researching the subject in the following years, in 1912 publishing The Royal Mummies, in folio with many plates. These studies were not merely archaeological, but belong to the history of medicine, the bodies of these ancient Egyptians revealing much of physical and pathological interest.

All the while, Grafton continued teaching at the School of Medicine, also writing a textbook of Anatomy in 1900. He visited England in 1906 and 1907 and spoke at meetings of the Anatomical Society. On his return to Egypt, it had been decided to raise the level of the Aswan Dam, which meant submerging a large area. A systematic examination of the antiquities was necessary and Grafton was appointed Anatomical Advisor. Together with his assistant F Wood Jones he examined no fewer than 6000 skeletons and mummies. It was not merely a question of recording measurements and anatomical features: Many of the bodies were in such a remarkable state of preservation that it was possible to perform post-mortem examinations after some five thousand years, and cases of gout, rheumatoid arthritis and the adhesions consequent upon appendicitis, were all discovered in one district. Feeling handicapped by not being in Great Britain, Grafton immediately accepted the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Manchester when he was offered the position in 1909.

In Manchester, he began to reorganise his Department. The dissection of dead bodies was as necessary as ever, but he felt much more study of the structure and functions of the living body might be made with the help of X-ray and other appliances. He attracted post-graduate students and encouraged research, the department soon developing a high level of efficiency.

In 1915, his The Migrations of Early Culture was published by Manchester University Press. Grafton had been interested in the treatment of mental patients and advocating reforms before the war. In 1917, in conjunction with Professor T H Pears, he published Shell Shock and its Lessons, which advocates the use of psychiatric clinics for people in the early stages of mental disorder. Grafton is said to have been one of the most influential in effecting reforms in the treatment of mentally disturbed patients.

In 1919, he accepted the Chair of Anatomy at University College London, which as his previous positions, he obtained by invitation. He visited America in 1920 to collect information on starting an institute of anatomy, and on his return found time to lecture at the universities of Utrecht and Groeningen. Toward the end of the year, he wrote the Anthropology article for the 12th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Grafton was very interested in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen and is said to have been the one to examine the preserved body of Tutankhamen. His subsequent book Tutankhamen and the Discovery of His Tomb was extremely successful. In 1924 he published Elephants and Ethnologists and his Essay on the Evolution of Man, also giving a course of lectures on Anthropology at the University of California. En route, he was consulted by the Rockefeller Foundation as to the establishment of a department of anthropology at the University of Sydney, and Grafton agreed to discuss the scheme with the federal Government. He arrived in Australia in September 1924 and, after a conference with the Prime Minister Bruce, the Department was established. In 1925, he gave a course of lectures as the Ecole de Medicine in Paris, and became very interested in the problems revolving around the discovery of Australopithecus. In 1927, he gave a course of lectures on the History of Man at Gresham College, published these three years later as one of his most widely read books, Human History. In 1928, he published In The Beginning: the Origin of Civilisation, and in the following year, attended the Pacific Congress in Java. He visited China in 1930 to examine the newly discovered Sinanthropus and on his return, lectured at University College on The Significance of Peking Man. In 1932, he finished another work: The Diffusion of Culture.

Grafton was knighted in 1934. He suffered a stroke at the end of that year but recovered enough to work again, although not at the same capacity. In 1936 he retired from the Chair of Anatomy at University College.

Sir Grafton Elliot Smith died in 1937.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.