Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Wandering anatomists and itinerant anthropologists: the antipodean sciences of race in Britain between the wars


While the British Empire conventionally is recognized as a source of research subjects and objects in anthropology, and a site where anthropological expertise might inform public administration, the settler-colonial affiliations and experiences of many leading physical anthropologists could also directly shape theories of human variation, both physical and cultural. Antipodean anthropologists like Grafton Elliot Smith were pre-adapted to diffusionist models that explained cultural achievement in terms of the migration, contact and mixing of peoples. Trained in comparative methods, these fractious cosmopolitans also favoured a dynamic human biology, often emphasizing the heterogeneity and environmental plasticity of body form and function, and viewing fixed, static racial typologies and hierarchies sceptically. By following leading representatives of empire anatomy and physical anthropology, such as Elliot Smith and Frederic Wood Jones, around the globe, it is possible to recover the colonial entanglements and biases of interwar British anthropology, moving beyond a simple inventory of imperial sources, and crediting human biology and social anthropology not just as colonial sciences but as the sciences of itinerant colonials.

Hide All

1 Frederick Parsons to Frederic Wood Jones, 9 September 1922, General Correspondence, Wood Jones Papers, Royal College of Surgeons Archives, London (subsequently Wood Jones Papers), MS0017/1/12. For Elliot Smith's long-running dominance in the Anatomical Society see Barclay-Smith Edward, The First Fifty Years of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain & Ireland: A Retrospect, London: John Roberts, 1937, p. 22.

2 Robert Broom to Lady Elliot Smith, 12 January 1937, Letters and Papers Concerning the Life and Work of Professor Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (1871–1937), Andrew Arthur Abbie Collection, Royal Anthropological Institute Archives, London (subsequently Abbie Collection), MS 423/2/8.

3 Langham Ian, The Building of British Social Anthropology: W.H.R. Rivers and His Cambridge Disciples in the Development of Kinship Studies, 1898–1931, Boston: Kluwer, 1981; Kuklick Henrika, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991; and Stocking George W.Jr, After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1888–1951, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

4 Kuklick, op. cit. (3), p. 129; For Elliot Smith's continuing diffusionist influence in the dominions see Elkin A.P., ‘Elliot Smith and the diffusion of culture’, in Elkin A.P. and MacIntosh N.W.G. (eds.), Grafton Elliot Smith: The Man and His Work, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1974, pp. 139159; Raymond A. Dart, ‘Cultural diffusion from, in and to Africa’, in Elkin and Macintosh, op. cit., pp. 160–174; Anderson Warwick, ‘Ambiguities of race: science on the reproductive frontiers of Australia and the Pacific between the wars’, Australian Historical Studies (2009) 40, pp. 143–60; and Crook Paul, Grafton Elliot Smith, Egypt and the Diffusion of Culture: A Biographical Perspective, Portland: University of Sussex Press, 2012.

5 In 1932 Elliot Smith suffered a stroke, which greatly diminished his ability to continue the battle. Also, his most famous convert, W.H.R. Rivers, had died in 1922, and Rivers's students mostly became psychologists, not anthropologists. Therefore diffusionism lacked a strong leader and a fresh batch of British social anthropologists willing to carry on the message in the 1930s. See Kuklick, op. cit. (3), pp. 129–130.

6 Kuklick, op. cit. (3), p. 9.

7 Annan Noel, ‘The intellectual aristocracy’, in Plumb J.H., Studies in Social History: A Tribute to G.M. Trevelyan, London, Longmans, 1955.

8 Anderson Warwick, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health, and Racial Destiny in Australia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

9 Stepan Nancy, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960, London: Macmillan, 1982; Kuklick, op. cit. (3); and Evans Andrew D., Anthropology at War: World War I and the Science of Race in Germany, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

10 Fredrickson George M., White Supremacy: A Comparative History of American and South African History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982; and Barkan Elazar, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

11 In this sense, the project is postcolonial critique: see Anderson Warwick and Adams Vicanne, ‘Pramoedya's chickens: postcolonial studies of technoscience’, in Hackett Edward et al. (eds.), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, pp. 181204; and Anderson Warwick, ‘From subjugated knowledge to conjugated subjects: science and globalisation, or postcolonial studies of science?’, Postcolonial Studies (2009) 12, pp. 389400.

12 Le Gros Clark Wilfrid, There Is a Transcendence from Science to Science, Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press for the Institute for the Study of Man in Africa, 1965, p. 2. Le Gros Clark was professor of anatomy at the University of Oxford from 1934 to 1962; see Zuckerman Lord, ‘Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark. 1895–1971’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (1973) 19, pp. 217233.

13 Clark, op. cit. (12), p. 2. According to Keith, An Autobiography, London: Watts and Co., 1950, pp. 112–113, his decision to become an anatomist was primarily due to his experiences in Siam, not his medical training. Wood Jones wrote one the most important works on coral reefs during his stay as medical officer on the Cocos Keeling atoll in 1905. Jones Frederic Wood, Coral and Atolls etc, London: Lovell Reeve, 1910. See Le Gros Clark Wilfrid E., ‘Frederic Wood Jones. 1879–1954’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, (1955) 1, pp. 119134, 120–121.

14 Smith Grafton Elliot, Human History, London: Jonathon Cape, 1930, p. 10. See more examples at pp. 11 f.

15 Smail Daniel Lord, On Deep History and the Brain, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, pp. 30, 26. See also Keith Arthur, The Antiquity of Man, London: Williams and Norgate, 1915; and Keith, New Discoveries Relating to the Antiquity of Man, New York: Norton, 1931.

16 Elliot Smith wrote to the ethnologist Charles Seligman in 1934, ‘I am not surprised by Keith's confusion of Race and Nationality. He has always been confused on this’. Grafton Elliot Smith to Charles G. Seligman, 15 August 1934, Abbie Collection, MS 423/1/20.23.

17 Keith, op. cit. (13), pp. 201, 635.

18 Keith, op. cit. (13), pp. 238, 656.

19 Zuckerman Solly, ‘Sir Grafton Elliot Smith 1871–1937’, in Zuckerman (ed.), The Concepts of Human Evolution: Symposia of the Zoological Society of London, Number 33, London: Academic Press, 1973, pp. 321, 3. Later Baron Zuckerman of Burnham Thorpe, an honour he earned after serving as chief scientific adviser to the Wilson Labour government.

20 Morison Patricia, J.T. Wilson and the Fraternity of Duckmaloi, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.

21 Smith Grafton Elliot and Jones Frederic Wood, The Archaeological Survey of Nubia: Report for 1907–1908, vol. 2: Report on the Human Remains, Survey Department, Cairo: National Printing Department, 1910. For dissenting and supporting views concerning the primacy of Elliot Smith and Wood Jones see Aufderheide Arthur C., The Scientific Study of Mummies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 1214; Murray Tim, Milestones in Archaeology: A Chronological Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007, pp. 343344; and Waldron H.A., ‘The study of human remains from Nubia: the contribution of Grafton Elliot Smith and his colleagues to paleopathology’, Medical History (2000) 44, pp. 363388.

22 Harris H.A., ‘At University College London’, in Dawson Warren R. (ed.), Sir Grafton Elliot Smith: A Biographical Record by His Colleagues, London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, pp. 169182, 175176.

23 Grafton Elliot Smith to Edwin Embree, 1 December 1926, p. 5, RF, 1.1, 410, 3, 29, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY. See also Perkins Alfred, Edwin Rogers Embree: The Julius Rosenwald Fund, Foundation Philanthropy and American Race Relations, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

24 Rosenberg Charles E., ‘Charles Benedict Davenport and the beginning of human genetics’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1961) 35, pp. 266276; Kevles Daniel J., In the Name of Eugenics, 2nd edn, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 4157; and Barker David, ‘The biology of stupidity: genetics, eugenics and mental deficiency in the inter-war years’, BJHS (1989) 22, pp. 347375. Smith Elliot, in The Evolution of Man: Essays, London: Oxford University Press, 1924, p. 116, wrote that ‘the enthusiastic energy of Eugenic Societies has unintentionally had the effect of obscuring the factors of environment and education’.

25 The considerable quantity of specimens circulating through the network was central to their intellectual endeavour. For example, see the correspondence between Grafton Elliot Smith and Robert Broom, Abbie Collection, MS 423/1/4.1–37. When Elliot Smith moved to University College London from Manchester in 1919–1920 he required three large lorries just to transport his private collection of specimens (Grafton Elliot Smith to Karl Pearson, 13 January 1920, Karl Pearson Papers, University College London Library Services, Special Collections and Pearson Papers, London, 856/9).

26 At the time of his death in 1937, twenty of his former demonstrators filled anatomy chairs throughout the empire and the USA. Harris wrote, ‘several other occupants of professorial chairs owe their position largely to the enthusiasm with which Elliot Smith infected them when they were spending … leave at University College’. Harris, op. cit. (22), p. 177; Barclay-Smith, op. cit. (1), p. 22; and Elkin and Macintosh, op. cit. (4).

27 Elliot Smith came to the BAAS conference in Australia in 1914 and travelled on numerous occasions including to Java, China, Spain, and the USA. H.D. Macintosh, ‘Welcome’, in Black and Macintosh, op. cit. (4), pp. 3–7. His trip to China was at the request of his Canadian protégé Davidson Black, who arranged for him to advertise the discovery of Peking Man. Davidson Black to Arthur Keith, 27 December 1930, Wood Jones Papers, MS0017/1/2/8.

28 Pear T.H., ‘Some early relations between English ethnologists and psychologists’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1960) 90, pp. 227237, 228.

29 Warren R. Dawson, ‘A General Biography’, in Dawson, op. cit. (22), pp. 17–110, 66; and A.P. Elkin, ‘Sir Grafton Elliot Smith: the man and his work: a personal testimony’, in Elkin and Macintosh, op. cit. (4), pp. 8–15, 9.

30 Grafton Elliot Smith to William Perry, 27 June 1916, Abbie Collection, MS 423/1/17.87.

31 Bronislaw Malinowski to Elsie Malinowski, 18 June 1920, Malinowski Papers, London School of Economics Archives, London, correspondence 34/12. The social anthropologist Edmund Leach wrote in 1973 that what Elliot Smith ‘taught us as regards ethnology was absolute rubbish’, yet he ‘nevertheless he had great enthusiasm which generated a great deal of research. I would say the same of Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown … In exactly the same way nearly everything they thought was false, but nevertheless they were very great men’. Edmund Leach, ‘Discussion’, in Solly Zuckerman, op. cit. (19), pp. 432–443, 436. For the controversy see Elliot Smith Grafton, Malinowski Bronislaw et al. , Culture: The Diffusionist Controversy, New York: Norton, 1927; Wallis Wilson D., ‘Anthropology in England early in the present century’, American Anthropologist (1957) 59, pp. 781790, 783; and Kuklick, op. cit. (3), pp. 125–132.

32 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (14), p. 252. For his critique of Edward Tylor see Smith Grafton Elliot, The Diffusion of Culture, Washington: Kennikat Press, 1971 (first published 1933), pp. 116183.

33 First propounded in Keith Arthur, ‘Presidential address: On certain factors concerned in the evolution of human races’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1916) 46, pp. 1034. See also Keith, Nationality and Race from an Anthropologist's Point of View, Being the Robert Boyle Lecture Delivered before the Oxford Junior Scientific Club on November 17, 1919, London: Oxford University Press, 1919; and Keith, op. cit. (13) pp. 389–408.

34 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (14), p. 497.

35 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (14), p. 171. Earlier he wrote, ‘It is very questionable whether any pure strains of mankind exist at the present time’. Elliot Smith, op. cit. (24), p. 50.

36 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (14), p. 11.

37 Myres John L., ‘International Congress’, Man (1934) 34, p. 81. It was formed as a split from the International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology. See Myres, ‘An International Congress for Anthropology and Ethnology’, Man (1932) 32, pp. 1012; Man (June 1934) 34, pp. 81–82; and ‘News’, Nature (1932) 129, p. 646.

38 Elliot Smith Grafton, ‘Chairman's address’, Congrès international des sciences anthropologiques et ethnologiques, compte-rendu de la première session, Londres, 1934, London: Institut royal d'anthropologie, 1934, p. 65.

39 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (38), p. 67.

40 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (38), p. 65.

41 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (38), p. 67.

42 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (38), p. 67.

43 While an early opponent of scientific racism, Elliot Smith's death in 1937 meant he did not contribute to the movement away from racial typologies and hierarchies after the Second World War. See Barkan, op. cit. (10); and Reardon Jenny, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

44 Grafton Elliot Smith to Robert Broom, 9 January 1913, Abbie Collection, MS 423/1/4.29. At the time, Wood Jones was teaching anatomy in London.

45 Frederic Wood Jones, ‘In Egypt and Nubia’, in Dawson, op. cit. (22), pp. 139–148. Wood Jones spent 1927–1929 in Hawaii, but he never settled into US academic life. After his Melbourne stint (1930–1937), he became professor of anatomy at Manchester (1938–1945), then conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

46 Clark, op. cit. (13), p. 128.

47 Frederic Wood Jones to Arthur Keith, 13 June 1921, Correspondence between Sir Arthur Keith and Frederic Wood Jones, 1905–1951, Wood Jones Papers, MS0018/1/37 (all this correspondence is in a bound volume). Wood Jones complained to Keith when marsupial material he had sent to Elliot Smith and J.P. Hill, the Australian physiologist at University College, was not acknowledged. Frederic Wood Jones to Arthur Keith, 3 January 1929, Wood Jones Papers, MS0018/1/37.

48 Grafton Elliot Smith to Frederic Wood Jones, 12 December 1923, Wood Jones Papers, General Correspondence, MS0017/1/14/4/1–6.

49 Frederic Wood Jones to Mrs Celia Keith, 28 May 1905, Correspondence between Sir Arthur Keith and Frederic Wood Jones, 1905–1951, Wood Jones Papers, MS0018/1/37.

50 Jones Frederic Wood, Habit and Heritage, London: Kegan Paul, 1943, p. 100.

51 Frederic Wood Jones to Arthur Keith, 24 August 1927, Correspondence between Sir Arthur Keith and Frederic Wood Jones, 1905–1951, Wood Jones Papers, MS0018/1/37.

52 Frederic Wood Jones to Arthur Keith, 10 December 1926, Correspondence between Sir Arthur Keith and Frederic Wood Jones, 1905–1951, Wood Jones Papers, MS0018/1/37.

53 Jones Frederic Wood, Australia's Vanishing Race, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934, p. 21.

54 For example, Frederic Wood Jones to Arthur Keith, 9 November 1936, Correspondence between Sir Arthur Keith and Frederic Wood Jones, 1905–1951, Wood Jones Papers, MS0018/1/37.

55 Jones Frederic Wood, ‘The non-metrical morphological characters of the skull as criteria for racial diagnosis. Part 1: General discussion of the morphological characters employed in racial diagnosis’, Journal of Anatomy (1931) 65, pp. 179195, 179.

56 Wood Jones, op. cit. (53), p. 22.

57 Wood Jones, op. cit. (53), pp. 16–17.

58 Jones Frederic Wood, ‘Anatomy and a life principle’, Commemoration Address, Adelaide University, 1923, in Life and Living, London: Kegan Paul, 1939, pp. 111–136, 121.

59 Jones Frederic Wood, Habit and Heritage, London: Kegan Paul, 1943, pp. 1011. For one of the many discussions of this see Crook D.P., Darwinism, War and History: The Debate over the Biology of War from the ‘Origin of Species’ to the First World War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

60 Elliot Smith, op. cit. (14), p. 11, p. 10.

61 These became Smith Grafton Elliot, Tutankhamen and the Discovery of His Tomb, London: Routledge, 1923.

62 For their falling out over Piltdown see Keith, op. cit. (13), pp. 326–327. For Elliot Smith's bullying of Keith see Grafton Elliot Smith to Arthur Keith, 27 September 1913, Papers of and Relating to Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, the University of Manchester, the John Rylands Library, Manchester, GB 133 GES/1/1. For an attempt to review the many Piltdown theories see Tobias Phillip V., Bowler Peter J., Cunningham Andrew T., Chippendale Christopher, Dennell Robyn W., Fedele F.G., Graves Paul, Grigson Caroline, Harrison G. Ainsworth, Harrold Francis B., Kennedy Kenneth A.R., Nickels Martin K., Rolland Nicholas, Runnels Curtis, Spencer Frank, Stringer C.B., Tappen N.C., Trigger Bruce G., Washburn Sherwood and Wright R.V.S., ‘Piltdown: an appraisal of the case against Sir Arthur Keith [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology (1992) 33, pp. 243293.

63 Grafton Elliot Smith to Donald Alexander McKenzie (1873–1936, Scottish journalist and prolific writer on anthropology), 16 February 1930, Abbie Collection, MS 423/1/15.11. The book received critical reviews in America ‘but was sold out in 3 weeks’.

64 He provided considerable advice and encouragement to the popular Scottish writer on anthropology and folklore Donald Mackenzie, whose books championed Elliot Smith's diffusionism. In the interwar years the Scottish writer and leading intellectual of the left James Leslie Mitchell (who wrote under the pen name Lewis Grassic Gibbon) believed that Elliot Smith was one of the most prominent figures in modern thought. He published a pen portrait of Smith in the popular journal of the cooperative movement, The Millgate, in June 1932. Alongside Smith was John Maynard Keynes and, in the same series later in the year, Joseph Stalin. See Mitchell James Leslie, ‘Grafton Elliot Smith: anthropologist, historian, humanist’, The Millgate (1931) 26, pp. 579582; and Burley Alice, ‘A note on the publication of James Leslie Mitchell's “Grafton Elliot Smith: A Student of Mankind”’, Notes and Queries (March 2008), pp. 4648.

65 Christophers Barry E., ‘Frederic Wood Jones: his major books and how they were reviewed’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery (1997) 67, pp. 645–659, 646. For his lectures see Clark, op. cit. (13), p. 122.

66 An early criticism of the historiography of British social anthropology by one of its distinguished players can be found in Leach Edmund, ‘Glimpses of the unmentionable in the history of British social anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology (1984) 13, pp. 123.

67 Stocking George W.Jr, ‘The critique of racial formalism’, in Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 161194; Spencer Frank, ‘The rise of academic physical anthropology in the United States (1880–1980): a historical overview’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1981) 56, pp. 353364; Stocking George W.Jr (ed.), Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Anthropology and the German Anthropological Tradition, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996; and Oppenheim Robert, ‘Revisiting Hrdlicka and Boas: asymmetries of race and anti-imperialism in interwar anthropology’, American Anthropologist (2010) 112, pp. 92103.

68 Proctor Robert, ‘From Anthropologie to Rassenkunde in the German anthropological tradition’, in Stocking George W.Jr (ed.), Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, pp. 138179; Penny H. Glenn and Bunzl Matti, Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in an Age of Empire, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003; Penny H. Glenn, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007; and Evans Andrew D., Anthropology at War: World War I and the Science of Race in Germany, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

69 Zimmerman Andrew, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

We would like to thank Cecily Hunter for research assistance, and Lisa O'Sullivan for offering advice on this project. We received support from the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project 2009–11, DP0985845).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 19 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 128 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.