12 February 2013

The people of The Link: Arthur Keith

Arthur Keith in 1912
Several of the characters in my historical thriller The Link are drawn from history. Here is another mini-bio: Arthur Keith.

At the time of our story in 1912, Arthur Keith was at the height of his career. At 46 he was a renowned anatomist, the curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. As The Link explains, he was the go-to guy for any new and exciting hominid fossil finds: experts from the Continent brought their discoveries to the College to have the great Arthur Keith pronounce upon them.

Arthur Keith was born in 1866 in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of a farmer. At the age of 16 he left school, after concluding that “learning was not my forte,” to work on the family farm. Fascinated by stories of university life told by a young lodger at the Keiths' home, Arthur moved in with his brother in Aberdeen and began to study the prerequisites for university admission: Greek, Logic, and English. Two years later he was admitted to the university’s medical program. After graduation, he worked for a while at an asylum before accepting a position as a mining company doctor in Siam (Thailand).

During his four years in the East, Arthur became fascinated with the local monkeys and gibbons and with primate anatomy in general. Back in London he plunged into a study of comparative anatomy, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1895. His first position was as a senior demonstrator at the London Hospital Medical School, where he worked to improve the quality of education and conducted his own research into the mechanisms of primate respiration and the heart. Keith married Celia Caroline Gray in 1899 and they moved into a rented house in north London.
In 1908, he accepted the position of conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, where he would remain for 23 years.

Arthur Keith, the ultimate comparative anatomist, was constantly at work on one paper or research project or another. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1913. One of the proposers for the honour was his old rival over the Piltdown fossils, Arthur Smith Woodward. Keith was knighted in 1921.

A former student recalled Keith as “tall and thin with sharp features, deep-set engaging eyes, and a powerful forehead. His appearance was attractive and distinguished, and his manner invariably friendly. Everyone was captivated by the softness of his voice and his modest almost diffident demeanour. There was gentleness but no lack of confidence and power in all he said and did. No one found anything but a depth of sincerity and kindliness when they knew him, and so he acquired and kept for years a wide circle of friends who became attached with affection to this great and gracious scientist." He is reported to have spoken quietly, enunciating each word separately, with a trace of a Scotch accent. His wit was sharp but never unkind. When bones were to be handed round his class, he often remarked that as with umbrellas, so with bones: no borrower ever thought it necessary to return them.

Keith first heard the rumours of the Piltdown discovery in September 1912. He admitted to being jealous: he believed that the Royal College of Surgeons, not the Natural History Museum, should be the proper home for all fossil remains of ancient man. He also resented that Woodward had garnered all the credit: Keith by then had spent more than 20 years dissecting primates, drawing and measuring ape and human skulls and teeth and pondering human evolution; Woodward, no human anatomist by any stretch, had probably never even seen a primate cadaver.

Woodward showed him the Piltdown fossils on two occasions before the public announcement and Keith immediately saw that Woodward’s reconstruction was all wrong. The Link reconstructs one of these meetings, imagining the tense dialog between the two giants of the scientific world.

Keith suffered recurring bouts of fever and illness and when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1931, he was forced to retire from the College. The Keiths had long owned a country cottage in Kent and in 1933 they moved to Downe close to Darwin’s home (Down House - which was by then a school). Keith subsequently secured Darwin’s house for the Royal College of Surgeons, to be restored as a museum. Sadly, Lady Keith died very shortly after they had moved there. They had no children.

Keith lived to hear that Piltdown was a fraud and it upset him terribly. He was particularly troubled that Dawson could have deceived him so thoroughly; he commented to the British Museum investigators who interviewed him in 1953 that it would take him some while to get used to it all. He died in January 1955 aged 89.

Keith was another prominent British scientist whose reputation would be tainted by the Piltdown affair. A few analysts have accused Keith of committing the fraud, citing as motive Keith’s public jealousy about the Piltdown fossils going to the Natural History Museum and not the College. As proof, they cite inconsistencies in Keith’s 1953 recollections about events 40 years before, statements of an octogenarian that do not match his much earlier diary entries. Few experts seem to have bought in to this complex theory which does not stand against the test of Occam’s razor.

What do I think about Keith as a person and a suspect? I actually agree with Augustus Parker’s conclusions on the matter. You’ll have to read The Link for yourself and then reach your own conclusion.

Arthur Keith obituary, British Medical Journal 1955.
Keith, Arthur, An Autobiography, London, Watts & Co., 1950
Russell, Miles, Piltdown Man, Stroud, Gloucester, Tempus Publishing, 2003.
University College London website.

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.