Sir Arthur Keith

1866 - 1955

Born in Persley, Aberdeen and brought up on Kinnermit farm near Turriff, Arthur Keith became Conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Leaving school at 16 to begin farming, he was persuaded to try an academic career by a lodger on his parents’ farm.
He entered Marischal College in 1884 as a medical student and was influenced greatly by John Struthers, the anatomist and James Trail, the botanist.
These contacts led to his travelling to Thailand for 3 years after graduation as medical officer for a mining company. Initially he collected plants for Kew gardens but became more interested in studying the anatomy of the local monkeys.

Returning to London, he secured a post as lecturer in anatomy at the London Hospital Medical School where his friendly character and meticulous work brought him the esteem of his colleagues. He was appointed as curator of the Hunterian museum, a post he held for 25 years.

His work on the anatomy of the heart won him distinction. With Martin Flack he dissected the conducting system of the heart discovering the sino-atrial node, the pacemaker of the heart. His research was helped by the work of his Professor of Physiology in Aberdeen, John Macwilliam.

However he was caught out in his anthropological work by accepting Piltdown man as genuine. Ever since he had received Charles Darwin’s book ‘The Origin of the Species’ as a prize, Keith had been interested in evolution. Piltdown man was made up from a modern human skull and the jaw bone of an orangutan but for 40 years was believed to be an early human. In 1938, Arthur Keith unveiled a memorial in Piltdown, East Sussex to mark where Charles Dawson had discovered the skull in 1912. However by 1953 modern techniques showed Piltdown man to be a forgery.

In 1921, Keith was knighted and became rector of Aberdeen University in 1930. A prolific writer, Keith’s autobiography shows the wide range of interests he held throughout his life.

His later years were spent at Downe, Kent, where Charles Darwin had lived. He died there in 1955.

Biography prepared from the nomination made by Dr Hilary Hinton to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.