Anatomists of Empire: Race, evolution and the discovery of human biology in the british world

Of skulls, an astonishing hoax, the beginnings of the study of humankind, scientistic racism – and the Australian scientists in the thick of it…

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The 20th-century anatomists Grafton Elliot Smith, Frederic Wood Jones and Arthur Keith travelled the globe collecting and constructing morphologies of the biological world with the aim of linking humans to their deep past as well as their evolutionary niche.

They dissected human bodies and scrutinised the living, explaining for the first time the intricacies of human biology. They placed the body in its environment and gave it a history, thus creating an ecological synthesis in striking contrast to the model of humanity that they inherited as students.

Their version of human development and history profoundly influenced public opinion as they wrote prolifically for the press, published bestsellers on human origins and evolution, and spoke eloquently at public meetings and on the radio.

By changing popular views of race and environment they moulded attitudes as to what it meant to be human in a  post-Darwinian world – thus providing a potent critique of racism.


Ross Jones (BA (Hons) 1978, GDipEd 1980) taught in schools for over two decades before completing his PhD on the Australian eugenics movement.

Since then he has variously taught the histories of medicine, public health and biology at the University of Melbourne; has been an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney as well as the Redmond Barry Fellow at the State Library of Victoria.

He is an active contributor in newspapers, radio, TV and online and has published widely in the areas of the history of anatomy, eugenics, medical biography and education including his previous book Humanity’s Mirror: 150 Years of Anatomy in Melbourne.

He is currently an honorary Senior Fellow in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience at the University of Melbourne.