SMITH, William Ramsay (1859-1937)


SMITH, William Ramsay (1859-1937)
anthropologist
son of William Smith and Mary MacDonald, was born at King Edward, Aberdeenshire, on 27 November 1859. He attended district schools, and winning a Free Church scholarship, went to Edinburgh university and the training college for two years. At 20 he was appointed head teacher of a school in the north of Scotland, but again attended Edinburgh university, studying arts and science subjects, and won an entrance scholarship for medicine of £100 a year for three years. On completing his medical course in 1885 he was appointed assistant-professor of natural history, and demonstrator of zoology. In 1889 Illustrations of Zoology was published which he had prepared in collaboration with J. S. Norwell. For two years Smith was demonstrator of anatomy at Edinburgh, and in 1896 was brought to Australia by the South Australian government to fill a position in the Adelaide hospital. Three years later he was appointed city coroner and permanent head of the department of health at Adelaide. He had become associated with the military forces soon after his arrival, and during the South African war was officer in charge of plague administration at Cape Town. Returning to Australia Smith published in 1904 A Manual for Coroners, and in his spare time made a special study of the Australian aborigines. He was the author of the excellent article, "The Aborigines of Australia", which was printed in volume three of the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth. of Australia, published in 1910. In 1913 he published Medical Jurisprudence from the Judicial Standpoint, and in 1915 was in charge of the Australian general hospital at Heliopolis, Egypt. On his return to Adelaide he took up his duties at the board of health again, contributed to the Australian Encyclopaedia, including a large part of the article on Aborigines, and following a trip to the South Seas brought out his pleasantly written In Southern Seas in 1924. The second half of this book mostly relates to the Australian aborigines. Smith retired in 1929 and published in 1930 his Myths of the Australian Aboriginals, "a collection of narratives as told by pure-blooded aboriginals of various tribes who have been conversant with the subject from childhood". In spite of this statement the book must be read with extreme caution, for the aboriginals in question must have had much contact with Europeans. One is obliged to ask how much have these stories been influenced by this contact, and though Smith stated that "no pains have been spared in the endeavour to find out accurately what was in the minds of the narrator" how much was he compelled to add in preparing the stories for his book? This was his last volume, and living quietly among his books at Belair he died there on 28 September 1937. He married in 1889 Margaret, daughter of James Mackenzie, who predeceased him. There were four daughters and one son of the marriage.
Ramsay Smith had many degrees, and was a fellow of the Royal Society, Edinburgh. In addition to the volumes already mentioned he published some pamphlets and contributed largely to scientific journals and Chambers Encyclopaedia. He was much interested in literature, philosophy and music, was an excellent public servant, and, apart from his last volume, earned a high position as an authority on the Australian aborigines.
The Advertiser, Adelaide, 29 September 1937; Who's Who, 1938; The Times Literary Supplement, 19 March 1931.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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