Sir Arthur Keith
Biography of Sir Arthur Keith
Sir Arthur Keith, Anatomist and physical anthropologist, a doctor of medicine, science, and law. Highly influenced by Charles Darwin, Keith specialized in the study of fossil man and reconstructed early hominid forms. In his writings on evolution, Keith tended to emphasize the competitive factor and interpreted racial and national prejudice as inborn. He was knighted in 1921. In medicine he is primarily remembered for the eponymic term Keith-Flack node.
A Darwinian and his monkeys
Arthur Keith was the fourth son of John Keith, a small farmer, and the former Jessie Macpherson. Not outstanding as a schoolboy scholar, he showed his abilities on entering medical school and, while studying medicine at Marrischal College, Aberdeen, he twice topped the anatomy classes. For prizes he was given Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the following year, 1886, Tyler’s Anthropology, two books that greatly influenced his career.
Keith became a bachelor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen in 1888 and the following year went as a physician to a goldmining project in Siam (Thailand). The mine failed and many labourers died of malaria, but Keith, who was also sent as a plant collector assistant in the Botanical Survey of the Malay Peninsula, collected plants for Kew Gardens. During his three years in Siam, he collected 500 plants, which were later used in Henry Nicholas Ridley’s (1855-1956) Flora of the Malay Peninsula (1925), but his real interest was in monkeys and apes, which he dissected. He also became interested in racial types.
Returning to Britain in 1892, Keith studied anatomy under George Dancer Thane (1850-1930) at University College, London, and under Robert William Reid (1851-1938) at Aberdeen, where he won the first Struthers prize (1893) with a demonstration of the ligaments of man and ape. In 1894 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and received his M.D. degree from Aberdeen, but his thesis on primate muscles was not published. During 1895 Keith worked under Wilhelm His (1863-1934) at Leipzig. In 1899 he married Celia Grey, who died in 1934.
Keith was appointed senior demonstrator of anatomy at the London Hospital in 1895, and became head of the department in 1899. He was an excellent teacher and inspired many students to research. At this time he studied the functional anatomy of respiration, morphology of the pelvic floor, the acquisition of the upright posture and the structure and development of the heart. His interest in the heart led him to meet and become a life-long friend of the internationally famous Scottish cardiologist James McKenzie (1853-1925), and from then on he examined many of the hearts, which McKenzie sent him, asking him for anatomical reasons for their clinical problems. During the course of these investigations he noted that where the superior vena cava entered the right auricle (the sulcus terminalus) there was a localised area of tissue in which nerve fibres terminated. Martin Flack had been working with him on the anatomy of the mole’s heart, and together they published the discovery of the sino-atrial node in 1907. This observation was of much value to cardiology, especially when heart surgery was developed forty years later. At this time he wrote his textbook Human Embryology and Morphology that became a standard text of the day and went through many editions.
Keith, the museum piece
Keith resigned from the hospital in 1908 to become curator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where a vast and somewhat heterogeneous medical collection had grown round the nucleus of John Hunter’s museum of comparative anatomy and pathology.
Keith believed that it was a curator’s first duty to make the resources of his museum available to research workers, and that a scientist ought to awaken the public to the message of his work and ideas. He thus became a successful populariser in the tradition of T. H. Huxley (1825-1895), and published two semi popular books in 1919. Engines of the Human Body offered «fresh interpretation» of structure and function; Keith reported that it met «fair success, but was soon out of date.» His Menders of the Maimed was a historical critique of orthopaedic surgery, combined with an exposition of the natural powers of living bone.
Keith the populariser, however, also revived the scientific side of the college’s work, gave stimulating demonstration-lectures, and encouraged surgeons and anatomists to use the museum; but there were then no students at the college and little facility for research.
There he continued his work on congenital disabilities of the heart and its embryological development and he wrote extensively on the endocrinology of racial characteristics and on anthropological topics. Under his direction the Hunterian museum was greatly expanded and his own interests brought there much human anthropological remains from all over the world.
Keith’s interest now reverted to anthropology. He became a leading authority on human remains and developed a number of methodological techniques for their measurement and identification. He had studied primate skulls in 1895 and had published An Introduction to the Study of Anthropoid Apes (London, 1897). He had also written a monograph, Man and Ape, which his publisher refused in 1900. In 1911 he published in London a short book, Ancient Types of Man, on the theme that the modern type was as old as the extinct primitive types. He followed this in 1915 with the monograph The Antiquity of Man that established for him a worldwide reputation as one of the greatest anthropologists of his day. This book is an anatomical survey of all-important fossil remains. He enlarged it in 1925 but «with diminishing conviction.» In New Discoveries (1931), Keith admitted that evidence really suggested that modern races arose from types already separate in the early Pleistocene. Between 1919 and 1939, when he completed his study of the Palestinian Stone Age remains, he published many reports on human fossils and became the principal arbiter in discussing them.
Keith was active in several societies, becoming president of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1914-1917), president of the Anatomical Society (1918) and editor of the Journal of Anatomy (1916-1936), honorary secretary of the Royal Institution (1922-1926), and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1927). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1913 and was knighted in 1921.
In 1933 ill health forced Keith's resignation from his position at the College of Surgeons but in view of his services he was appointed Master of the Buckston Brown Research Farm at Downe near Darwin’s old house “Down House”. This had been founded in 1932 at Keith’s instigation and with the financial support of Buckston Browne, a retired surgeon, the Royal College of Surgeons. Keith held the post until his death in 1955 at the age of eighty-eight. During his twenty-one years at Downe, besides advising and inspiring successive young researchers at the farm, Keith continued his work in anthropology and wrote his autobiography, a life of Darwin, and several books which sought to correlate the physical and moral evolution of man.
In 1935 he re-evaluated his 1914 interpretation of the Piltdown «fossil» the nature of which had always puzzled him and on which he had spent considerable time and thought. He never fully accepted the Piltdown «mosaic of neanthropic and simian features». When this find was exposed as a fraud, it was easy to imagine the mental turmoil that he must have gone through, but he said that the major tragedy to him was «loss of faith in the testimony of fellow workers.»
No lazy fellow
An extraordinary active and creative man, Keith made more than 500 publications, was much sought after by the popular press and engaged in several public debates largely revolving around his Darwinian beliefs and agnosticism.
Keith was tall and thin, with aquiline features, a prominent forehead and engaging and searching eyes and spoke softly with a somewhat piping voice and distinct Scottish burr. Although he presented a diffident exterior, he was well aware of his abilities and strengths and had the flair, which made him an excellent teacher who was persuasive rather than didactic and who maintained personal contacts with his students. His most distinguished student was Frederick Woods Jones, for whom he had the highest regard. McKenzie said of Keith: «whenever Keith looks at anything, he sees something no-one else has noticed, and when he sees it he begins to wonder why».