The story of Grafton Elliot Smith is the story of the brilliant colonial boy who did well for himself. He was born on August 15,1871 in Grafton, New South Wales, the son of Stephen Sheldrick Smith, a teacher, and his wife, Mary Jane Evens. Smith soon showed his precocious intelligence, developing an interest in anatomy after dissecting a shark. He was able to attend the University of Sydney, graduating with an MD in 1895 and winning a gold medal for his thesis on the anatomy of the brain in non-placental mammals. The following year, Smith was awarded a traveling scholarship to study for his PhD at Cambridge University, and in 1899 he completed his extraordinary ascent by being elected a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge.
While Smith’s rise was rapid, his colonial origins meant he was at a disadvantage for the best appointments in Britain, so in 1900 he went to Egypt as the first occupant of the Chair of Anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine, a post he held until 1909. With his colleague Fredrick Wood Jones (1879-1954), Smith investigated thousands of mummified remains, diagnosing many diseases along the way (gout, leprosy, smallpox, and tuberculosis among them). This work vastly extended contemporary knowledge of life in ancient Egypt. For his work on an ancient brain recovered by archaeologists, and as anatomical advisor to the archaeological survey of Nubia (now northern Sudan), Smith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1907. This work complemented a major project of cataloguing brains that Smith undertook before going to Egypt and which was published in 1902. Smith’s Egyptian work was published as The Royal Mummies (1912) and remains his principal contribution to science.
The second, and less helpful, phase of Smith’s career began when he returned to the United Kingdom in 1909 to take up the Chair of Anatomy at Manchester University, a position he held until 1919. It was at Manchester that Smith developed his controversial theory, which became known as diffusionism. It was Smith’s belief that Homo sapiens emanated from central Asia rather than from Africa. This view was not unique to Smith; its best known advocate was Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Smith outlined his theory of diffusionism in a series of works, principally The Diffusion of Culture (1933). Smith’s extreme version of diffusionism failed to convince during his lifetime and has not been revisited. After his death, a longstanding colleague, A. C. Haddon (1855-1940), noted tactfully that Smith’s zeal for diffusionism outran his discretion.
Less controversial then than it is now, Smith also subscribed to some racist readings of evolution. He had no doubt that Australian Aborigines were “the most primitive race …which represents the survival with comparatively slight modification of perhaps the primitive type of the species.” Smith then saw the racial order move progressively upwards through the Africans, the Mongols, and on toward the “Alpine Race,” which in turn was divided between its Mediterranean and Nordic Races, “in which the latter of which the reduction of pigment was carried a stage further to produce the blondest of all human beings.” Smith’s racism was not obsessive or malevolent, as it was with some of his contemporaries. For him it was simply the clear testimony of science.
Smith was a talented popularizer who wrote several works designed for the non-specialist reader. For example, The Search for Man’s Ancestors (1931) was part of an influential popular science series called The Forum Series, published by Watts & Co. for the Rationalist Press Association (RPA). Even more influential was another RPA series called the Thinker’s Library, in which Smith had a book titled In the Beginning The Origin of Civilization (1932). Smith became an Honorary Associate of the RPA in 1925 and he was knighted in 1934.
It is perhaps inevitable that Smith has been accused of being the mastermind behind the Piltdown fraud. This theory, always unlikely, was squashed with findings in 2003 that definitively placed responsibility back on the original suspect, Charles Dawson, the man who found the Piltdown pieces.
Smith’s health was eroded in the 1930s by a series of strokes brought on by hypertension and diabetes. He died on January 1, 1937 after another stroke. He was survived by his wife of 37 years, Kathleen, and his three sons. Each year the Australian Neuroscience Society presents the Sir Grafton Elliot Smith Award to the best emerging neuroscientist.
- Smith, G. E. (1923). Essays on the evolution of man. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Stocking, G. W. (1995). After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888-1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.