Sir Arthur Keith

Sir Arthur Keith (1866-1955) was a British anatomist and physical anthropologist who specialized in the study of human evolution.

Arthur Keith was born on February 5, 1866, at Quarry Farm, Persley, near Aberdeen, Scotland, the sixth of ten children and the fourth son of John and Jessie (Macpherson) Keith. In his autobiography, Keith stated that as a youth he had been so impressed by Charles Darwin's then recently published book Origin of Species (1859) that he resolved to prepare for a medical education. In 1884 he entered Marischal College of the University of Aberdeen, where he came under the influence of the botanist James Trail and (Sir) John Struthers, the anatomist.

On graduating with the highest honors in 1888, Keith accepted a post as medical officer to a mining company in Siam (Thailand). Although his original intention had been to use this as an opportunity to collect botanical specimens, he found himself becoming more interested instead in the local monkeys and apes. It was largely through his field observations and anatomical studies of the indigenous primates of Siam that his incipient interest in human evolution and physical anthropology in general began to take shape. It should be noted, however, that the botanical specimens he collected while in Siam were later used by H. N. Ridley in his comprehensive work on the Flora of the Malay Peninsula (1922-1925).

After three years in Siam, Keith returned home, and in 1894 he was awarded the degree of MD by the University of Aberdeen for a thesis entitled "The Myology of the Catarrhini: A Study in Evolution." He also passed the examination for the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. Armed with his MD and FRCS he won appointment as senior demonstrator in anatomy (1895) at the Medical School of the London Hospital. In 1908 he was elected to the conservatorship of the Royal College of Surgeons, and shortly thereafter he became president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain (1912-1914); fellow of the Royal Society (1913); and Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution (1917-1923). It was during the last appointment that he received a knighthood (1921). In 1927 he was elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and three years later his professional career culminated with his election as rector of his alma mater, the University of Aberdeen (1930-1933).

Shortly after taking up his position at the London Hospital, Keith began work on Man and Ape, a book commissioned by the publisher John Murray. Between 1897 and 1900 Keith labored on what he considered to be his "magnum opus"—a compilation of the information on the comparative anatomy of living and fossil primates that he put together from his own research and from published anatomical descriptions. Although unpublished, the work is important as a historical document since it formed the basis for much of his later contributions to this area of research, as well as summarizing what was then known about apes and human comparative anatomy.

Although best remembered for his contributions to anthropology, Keith's earlier anatomical studies are noteworthy, particularly his researches into the causes of cardiac arrhythmia. He was responsible, in this regard, for describing (with Martin Flack), in 1906, the "sino-auricular node" of the heart and its role in the initiation and control of normal rhythmic contraction of the heart. He authored the well-known text Human Embryology and Morphology, which was published in 1902 and reached a sixth edition in 1948, and also edited and contributed to a number of textbooks dealing with surgical anatomy, such as (Sir Frederick) Treve's Surgical Applied Anatomy (1901, 1907, 1909). As these works indicate, it was not until after his appointment at the Royal College of Surgeons that he began to give his full attention to the questions of human evolution and racial diversification.

In his first major work in paleoanthropology. Ancient Types of Men (1911), Keith claimed a greater antiquity for Homo sapiens than had hitherto been generally accepted. In advocating this view, Keith joined forces with the French paleoanthropologist Marcellin Boule and others in rejecting the proposition that Neanderthals represented the antecedant form of modern humans—a position momentarily secured by the alleged discovery of the Piltdown hominid by the Sussex lawyer Charles Dawson in 1912. With the announcement of this "discovery," Keith became embroiled in a heated controversy with Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and Sir Grafton Elliot Smith and others who claimed this "fossil" hominid manifested marked simian characteristics. Keith endeavored to demonstrate that the skull, if "correctly" reconstructed, was in fact morphologically similar to modern Homo sapiens. Although expressing some doubts about the generally accepted interpretation of the Piltdown hominid (now known to have been a forgery), Keith did not directly question either its authenticity or its antiquity. His conclusions can be found in his book The Antiquity of Man (1915), a widely read work reviewing all the fossil hominid remains known at that time. A second edition of this work was published in 1925, and six years later it was brought up to date with a supplementary volume, New Discoveries Relating to the Antiquity of Man.

During World War I Keith was occupied with problems of surgical anatomy related to war injuries and published a number of articles on this subject, as well as a book, Menders of the Maimed (1919), which is a historical critique of orthopedic surgery. It was during this period that he gave the Christmas juvenile lectures at the Royal Institution; these lectures were later published under the title Engines of the Human Body (1919), a second edition of which appeared in 1925.

After the war Keith's interests turned increasingly to general themes in medical history and to somewhat speculative considerations of the evolutionary processes involved in the emergence of modern Homo sapiens. Although he earned an international reputation as one of the foremost students of human evolution and was a self-proclaimed follower of Darwin, his work was in fact far removed from Darwin's mechanistic world view. Rejecting the role of chance in evolution, Keith adopted a distinctly vitalistic viewpoint remarkably similar to that of Ernst Haeckel, whom, incidentally, he uncritically admired. Keith developed the thesis that the spirit of nationalism is a potent factor in the evolutionary differentiation of human races. His opinions on race as represented in his book A New Theory of Human Evolution (1948) met with considerable debate and criticism at the time and widespread repudiation later.

Perhaps the most enduring of the many works Keith published during the last decades of his life is his comprehensive study of the hominid remains recovered from the caves of Mount Carmel (1929-1934), near Haifa, in what was then Palestine. The results of this study are summarized in a treatise he coauthored with Theodore D. McCown, published under the title The Stone Age of Mount Carmel: the Fossil Remains from the Levalloiso-Mousterian (1939).

In 1933 recurrent ill-health forced Keith to resign from the conservatorship at the Royal College of Surgeons and to accept an appointment as master of the newly created Buckston Browne Research Institute at Downe, the country village south of London where Charles Darwin had once lived. It was here that Keith spent the remaining years of his life writing his memoirs and several books and essays on the physical and moral evolution of the human species. He died on January 7, 1955, in his 89th year.


Further Reading on Sir Arthur Keith

In addition to his autobiography (London, 1950), further biographical information on Keith can be found in the memoirs of W. E. Le Gros Clark, "Arthur Keith, 1866-1955," Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Volume 1 (1955), and in J. C. Brash and A. J. E. Cave, "In piam memoriam: Sir Arthur Keith FRS," Journal of Anatomy 89 (1955). For a critical assessment of his views on evolution see C. L. Brace, "Tales of the phylogenetic woods: the evolution and significance of evolutionary trees," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 56 (1981) and "The roots of the race concept in American physical anthropology," in F. Spencer (editor), A History of American Physical Anthropology, 1930-1980 (1982).