William Ramsay Smith

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Dr William Ramsay Smith FRSE (27 November 1859 – 28 September 1937)[1] was a Scottish physician, educator, naturalist, anthropologist and civil servant, who was active in Australia later in his career. It was during his time in Australia that Smith misappropriated the text of 'Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines' from the original indigenous author David Unaipon (born 1872).[2]

Early life[edit]

Smith was born in King Edward, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of William Smith (a farm servant, and later stationmaster) and his wife Mary née MacDonald (domestic servant). They lived on the estate of Cairnbanno House near New Deer. He attended the nearby Cairnbanno Public School (which taught using the Madras School system - all pupils also teaching). Winning a Free Church scholarship, from 1877 he studied arts at Edinburgh University and then attended Moray House Training College to train as a teacher for two years.[1]


At 20 years of age Smith was appointed headmaster of Invergordon Public School, in Easter Ross, but, due to an interest in physiology, he returned to Edinburgh University to study arts and science. He then won an entrance scholarship for Medicine of £100 a year for three years. On completing his medical course in 1885 Smith was appointed assistant-professor of natural history, senior demonstrator of zoology at Edinburgh University. He graduated BSc (natural sciences) in 1888.

In 1889 'Illustrations of Zoology' was published which he had prepared in collaboration with J. S. Norwell. He graduated MB ChM in 1892. For two years Smith was demonstrator of anatomy at Edinburgh, and served as examiner at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. During this period he lived at 4 Grange Loan in the south of Edinburgh.[3]


In 1896 he travelled to Australia at the request of the Government of South Australia to fill a pathology position at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Smith was expelled from the British Medical Association and banned from the association for life in 1897 after internal conflict with Hospital staff, but having been exonerated by a Tribunal, in 1899 he was appointed city Coroner and permanent head of the department of health at Adelaide.

In 1901 during the South African War Smith was surgeon captain, Imperial Bushmen's Corps and officer in charge of plague administration at Cape Town.[1]

Smith was suspended from coronial duties in 1903 after 18 charges were laid against him of the misuse of human remains, specifically the removal of heads and the collection of skeletons for medical research.[4] A board of inquiry headed by James George Russell found that Smith's actions had been "indiscreet" and he was dismissed from his position as coroner.[5] However, he was later reinstated and continued his practice of illicitly collecting human remains.[citation needed] He was responsible for the collection of human remains of Indigenous Australians, including remains stolen from burial grounds at Hindmarsh Island, some of which were shipped to overseas institutions.[6]

In 1904 Smith graduated DSc from the University of Adelaide, and published A Manual for Coroners. In his spare time made a special study of the Australian aborigines. Smith was the author of The Aborigines of Australia, which was printed in volume three of the Official 'Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia' (1910).

In 1906 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were Sir William Turner, Daniel John Cunningham, Alexander Crum Brown and Cargill Gilston Knott.[7]

In 1913 he published 'Medical Jurisprudence from the Judicial Standpoint', for which he received the degree of MD from Edinburgh University.

In 1915 was in charge of the Australian General Hospital, Australian Imperial Force, Heliopolis, Egypt. There, he clashed with principal matron Bell over which of them should manage the nursing staff. An Inquiry resulted in both being recalled to Australia.[1]

On his return to Adelaide, Smith resumed his duties at the board of health and contributed to the 'Australian Encyclopaedia', including a large part of the article on Aborigines. Following a trip to the South Seas Smith published In Southern Seas (1924); the second half of this book mostly relates to the Australian aborigines.

Smith retired in 1929 and published a book Myths of the Australian Aboriginals (1930), a collection of narratives as told by aboriginal people. It has subsequently emerged that the volume was plagiarised, and was almost entirely written by the Aboriginal polymath and scientist David Unaipon, who had sold the text to finance his own work.[8] Authorship of the book has now been restored to Uniapon and it has been republished under his name.[9] Smith has also been accused of sales of Aboriginal artefacts for profit.[10]

Anthropological collection[edit]

Ramsay Smith was responsible for the bulk of Edinburgh University's physical anthropology collection, some 500 to 600 individuals.

From Ramsay Smith's writings, it is clear that he was aware of indigenous funerary customs.

"After death no reference is made to the deceased, nor is his name mentioned. Relations by the same name find a substitute. A mother would not give [me] a lock of her child’s hair because she has been taught that if the child dies, its spirit will find no rest if that lock of hair survives."

As desecration of human remains was illegal, he used his position as Adelaide’s coroner to illicitly dissect and collect human remains, many being individuals of unusual pathologies or disease, most of which he presented to Edinburgh University. His writings indicate that he also robbed graves and it is believed he had once destroyed five graves to obtain one good specimen. Witnesses also record that he practiced his marksmanship with a .303 rifle on corpses at the mortuary of Adelaide hospital. While he did not receive payment for the remains, he was rewarded for his "donations" with Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (upon the proposal of Sir William Turner, Daniel John Cunningham, Alexander Crum Brown and Cargill Gilston Knott)[11] and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He was an honorary member of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States.

At his death in 1937, 182 skulls were found in his Adelaide home.[12]

In addition to numerous books, Ramsay Smith also published pamphlets and contributed largely to scientific journals and Chambers Encyclopaedia. He was interested in literature, philosophy and music, and earned a reputation as an authority on the Australian aborigine.


Smith spent his final years quietly among his books at Belair, South Australia, where he died on 28 September 1937. Smith had married Margaret, daughter of James Mackenzie, on 1 June 1889, who predeceased him. Four daughters and a son survived him.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Ronald Elmslie, Susan Nance. "Smith, William Ramsay (1859–1937)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
  2. ^ Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, David Unaipon, Ed. Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker: The Miegunyah Press, 2006. ©The David Unaipon Estate 2001
  3. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1895
  5. ^ Thornton, Robert. "Russell, James George (1848–1918)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
  6. ^ Marsh, Walter (27 April 2019). "Why returning 4600 Old People to Country is the duty of all of South Australia". Adelaide Review. Retrieved 6 May 2019. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  8. ^ Who is David Unaipon? Didj "u" Know at abc.net.au
  9. ^ David Unaipon. 2006. Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-85246-7.
  10. ^ On the shore of a strange land: David Unaipon, 7 March 2009 at abc.net.au
  11. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF). II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  12. ^ The Return of the Bones Meanjin quarterly Volume 68, Number 4, 2009