Daniel John Cunningham

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Daniel John Cunningham. Born April 15th, 1850; died June 23rd, 1909. By Professor Arthur Thomson

By the death of Professor D. J. Cunningham of the University of Edinburgh, at the age of fifty-nine, not only has the world of science lost a distinguished ornament, but many of us a valued friend. A son of the manse, he was born at Crieff, where his father, afterwards the distinguished Principal of St. Andrew’s University, was parish minister. In the academy school of the Perthshire town he received his early education, subsequently passing to the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated with honours in medicine in the year 1874. During his undergraduate career young Cunningham was noted for his brilliant talents, and in most, if not all, of his classes obtained the highest distinctions. In 1876 he took his doctor’s degree, being awarded a gold medal for the excellence of his thesis. It was then that he entered on the career which he has pursued with such distinction. Appointed a demonstrator on the anatomical staff of the University under Professor W. Turner, he threw himself into his work with an energy which was amazing. In spite of the arduous nature of his teaching duties he yet found time to engage in laborious research, and the early results of his tireless industry are to be found in the reports of the “Challenger” expedition, to which he contributed the article dealing with the Marsupialia. In those days Cunningham soon gave evidence of marked ability as a teacher: possessed of a clear and lucid style, he reduced the most complex subjects to terms so simple as that all might understand. He had the knack of enlisting the sympathy of his audience and so keeping their attention fixed. Frequently demonstrating, as he had to do, late in the afternoon, he succeeded effectually in maintaining the interest of his class. Seldom, indeed, did the worn-out student succumb to the influence of slumber when Cunningham was lecturing.

As the results of his accomplishment as a teacher, and his recognised ability as an anatomist, he quickly attained promotion. In 1882 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, a Chair which he occupied but for a year, being translated to the corresponding Chair in Trinity College, Dublin, on the resignation of Professor Alex. Macalister, then called to Cambridge. With what distinction and success Professor Cunningham held that office for a period of twenty years those conversant with medical education in Ireland can best testify. But, in 1903, the Chair of Anatomy in Edinburgh becoming vacant through the appointment of Sir William Turner to the Principalship of the University, Professor Cunningham, ever loyal to his Alma Mater, accepted the invitation to succeed to the illustrious line of anatomists who have adorned that University. At what personal sacrifice he entered on the duties of his new office those alone who knew him intimately can appreciate. It was wholly from a sense of duty to the University he loved so well that he undertook the responsibilities of so arduous a position. He had been looking forward to the time when, possibly, he might be able to take things a little more easily, and so find opportunities for the furtherance of those researches to which hitherto he had had so little time to devote. But these considerations never weighed with him; he went where duty called—too soon, alas! to be snatched from us in his prime just when probabilities of other and higher distinctions seemed well within his grasp.

It is outside the scope of this article to deal with his work as an anatomist, it is rather with the anthropological aspects of his work that we are most concerned. Among the memoirs which he wrote, none, perhaps, has attained wider recognition than that produced on “The Lumbar Curve in Man and Apes,” published by the Royal Irish Academy in 1886. It may be said to be the classic on the subject. Therein be submitted the data obtained from the measurement of the vertebrae of the columns of men and apes to a searching analysis: be proved bow erroneous conclusions, drawn from the macerated skeleton might be, because of the necessary neglect of the intervertebral discs in the constitution of the curves. Whereas the inspection of the macerated vertebral column of an Australian might lead to the supposition that a characteristic of that race was an apparent absence of the lumbar curve, be clearly demonstrated, by the examination of recent specimens with the discs still in position, that their vertebral columns displayed as pronounced curves as those exhibited by the higher races. He thus enforced the necessity of considering the close correlation which exists between structure and function in the vertebral columns, and was able in consequence to guard against the error of supposing that the osseous structure of the column in the lower races was a sign of inferiority; whereas, in fact, it was only proof of their greater range of mobility.

His studies in relation to giantism as embodied in his memoir on “Cornelius Magrath, the Irish Giant” (1891), were an important addition to our knowledge of the subject. Of not less importance, in regard to the question of head form, was his paper on the “Brain and Head of the Microcephalic Idiot,” published in the transactions of the Royal Irish Academy in 1895. Nor must we omit to mention the illuminating address delivered on the occasion of the Huxley memorial lecture in 1902, when he expounded in detail the anatomical evidence bearing on the subject of “Right-handedness and Left-brainedness.” His address, as President of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1908, dealt in a scholarly way with the influence exercised by the pioneers of physical anthropology in the eighteenth century, and provides in useful form an admirable record and criticism of the genius and labours of such men as Camper, White, Blumenbach, Pritchard, and Lawrence. Not less interesting, though possibly not so well known, was his address to the graduates in medicine of the University of Edinburgh in 1904 on “The Evolution of the Graduation Ceremony,” wherein he treated of the symbolism and survivals retained in the various ceremonies adopted by the universities throughout the world.

Of other contributions to the literature of anthropology we may note his presidential address at the Anthropological Section of the British Association at Glasgow in 1901, his memoir in the transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1906) on “The Varying Forms of the Stomach in Man and the Anthropoid Ape,” and his paper on the “Australian Forehead” in the collected essays presented to Professor E. B. Tylor on the occasion of his jubilee.

In other capacities Professor Cunningham’s association with anthropology was intimate and most helpful. He maintained the high standard of teaching on the subject initiated by his predecessor, Sir W. Turner, in the University of Edinburgh, where physical anthropology is recognised as one of the subjects for the B.Sc. degree. Whilst his services as chairman of the Committee of the British Association charged with the duty of promoting the establishment of an anthropometric survey of the British Isles have been widely appreciated.

Of honours he received many. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he also acted as one of the secretaries of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was a D.C.L. of Oxford, an LL.D. of Glasgow and St. Andrews, and a D.M. and D.Sc. of Dublin. A past president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he also served in a similar capacity in the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He rendered yeoman service to his country as one of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the care of the sick and wounded during the South African War, and his services were retained by the War Office Committee to report on the physical standards for candidates for commissions and recruits in the army.

But no account of the man would be complete without a reference to those personal traits which endeared him to all who knew him. Gifted as he was, he was the most modest of men. To him no trouble was excessive, no responsibility too great. Everything he undertook was carried through with a deep sense of duty. Slip-shod work was foreign to his nature ; thoroughness and efficiency were his ideals. To those who differed from him on matters of policy he was always generous ; to his colleagues and friends he was ever loyal and true. He lived a life without blemish, and his record may well serve as a bright example to those who have to follow.    


This obituary first appeared as: Thomson, Arthur. 1909. ‘Daniel John Cunningham. Born April 15th, 1850; Died June 23rd, 1909.’. Man Vol. 9, pp. 97-99. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

THOMSON, ARTHUR. 1909. ‘Daniel John Cunningham. Born April 15th, 1850; Died June 23rd, 1909.’. Man Vol. 9, pp. 97-99. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/daniel-john-cunningham).