Arthur Keith

Home Archives & Manuscripts Obituaries Arthur Keith

Sir Arthur Keith, F.R.S.: 1866-1955

Sir Arthur Keith, who died on 7 January, 1955, was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute for most of the war years 1914-1918, and I owe him much for kindness and help in connexion with a first paper to the Institute, a happy memory which brought immediate compliance with the Hon. Editor’s request for an obituary notice.

Arthur, sixth of ten children of John Keith and Jessie Macpherson, was born at Quarry Farm just north of Aberdeen on 5 February, 1866. John was a keen liberal, congregationalist and, later, a member of the Free Kirk deeply opposed to class privilege. His able and affectionate wife and he prospered and moved to Kinnermit, near the little town of Turriff. Arthur seemed destined to be a farmer, but, in spite of inability to acquire the classical languages, be managed to pass the entrance examination for the medical faculty of Aberdeen University. Later at Aberdeen a short assistantship in a country practice led him to meet a young visitor from England who, years afterwards, became his wife. The granite city in those days was exporting men to high service, the scholar Sir Herbert Grierson, the lovable Lord Meston, Sir Patrick Duncan and Sir Harvey Adamson (Governors of South Africa and of Burma), Sir David Prain (Director of Kew), Sir Leslie Mackenzie (health administrator applying social anthropology in studying Scottish communities) and several others. Keith and Mackenzie were classmates.

Years of struggle were diversified by adventures as a medical officer in Siam during which studies of primate anatomy, especially of the gibbon, were a relief from many difficulties. His health, never robust, suffered but triumphed over tuberculosis and other troubles and he lived to be 88. His wife was wont to say that she hoped to be able to take care of him to the end, but she died 20 years before him after they had been married 36 years.

Teaching at the London Hospital led on to the Conservatorship of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, which he held from 1908 to 1933. His lectures attracted public as well as student interest and led him to write articles on anthropological subjects, by-products of a keen, rather introspective mind, humanist and scientific as well as in a non-executive way artistic. He always showed, as well as held, that feelings, emotion perhaps, were strong elements in personality. Quick impressions might at times need later adjustment, but they were apt to be stimulating.

An enthusiastic Darwinian from student days, very critical of orthodoxies, Keith was early led to plead that the apes were our cousins rather than our ancestors, and he felt that Homo sapiens was of great antiquity, though he supported this view by accepting weak evidence for the great age of the Galley Hill skull. One should remember that this was long before Oakley’s use of the fluorine test. Marston’s later find and study of the Swanscombe skull, and Oakley’s test of its great age, put the thesis of high antiquity of H. sapiens on a surer foundation. So much has been said about Piltdown that one need but say regretfully how mistaken Elliot Smith, Smith Woodward and Keith all were in associating skull and jaw. Keith was less confident than the others about reconstruction of the skull. He courageously put together, publicly, pieces of a skull that had been intentionally cut by anatomists, making a fair success that did not satisfy him.

The most important of his studies of ancient skulls was done after retirement, with Dr. T. D. McCown, on skulls found by Professor Dorothy Garrod, in Palestine. When more finds have been made, they may well shed more light on the relative positions of H. sapiens and his cousin H. neandertalensis.

Of Keith’s many contributions to anatomical science one need not speak here; he more than maintained the scientific repute of his museum and made it in a large sense a centre of public interest as well as of research.

Keith’s temperamental emphasis on feeling led him to think that warfare had played a great part, and a by no means wholly evil one, in the social evolution of mankind. This aspect of his thought was strengthened by long friendship with the able and controversial writer, Morley Roberts. Nevertheless, Keith’s fervid patriotism did not interfere with his appreciation of German scientific work.

Keith’s association with Sir Buckston Browne preserved Down House as a Darwin memorial, a tribute to Keith’s reverence as well as to Browne’s generosity.

Interest in our Institute—to which he delivered the Huxley Memorial Lecture in 1928—was a feature of Keith’s life for many years, and he maintained it, at a distance, even after a breakdown in health made him leave London in 1933. His bequest of £500 to our funds and of a large number of separata to our Library is the last of the many efforts which he made for us.


This obituary first appeared as: Fleure, H. J.. 1956. ‘Sir Arthur Keith, F.R.S.: 1866-1955’. Man Vol. 56, pp. 123-124. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

FLEURE, H. J.. 1956. ‘Sir Arthur Keith, F.R.S.: 1866-1955’. Man Vol. 56, pp. 123-124. (available on-line:


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online