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Wilfred Le Glos Clark, 1895-1971

Le Gros Clark Wilfrid Le Gros Clark was born in 1895 in Gloucestershire. His father was a vicar but both of his grandfathers had been eminent surgeons. When he was 9 his mother died and the family moved to Devon. He was always clever at school and had qualified to go to medical school by the age of 16 and entered St Thomas's Hospital Medical School when he was just 17 in 1912. There was a lot of physics, chemistry and biology in the first year course at that time. He qualified before the end of the war and served, like his two elder brothers, in France in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the last year of the war. Immediately after the war he completed his FRCS exams and decided to 'cut himself adrift' to recover from the horrors of the war and took a job for 3 years as a principal medical officer in Sarawak, Borneo. There he became interested in the anatomy of tarsiers and tree shrews and in their evolutionary relations and origins.

In 1923 his former anatomy professor, as well as Elliot Smith, wrote to him urging him to apply for the chair of anatomy at St Bart's Hospital Medical School, for which he felt singularly unprepared. However, he applied and got the job, initially as a reader, (at £800 pa) for the first three years. He taught long and hard but also did important experimental work (such as proving that viral encephalitis spread to the brain via the nasal mucous membrane using a rabbit model). He was good friends with Elliot Smith and with J.P. Hill who allowed him to use technicians and equipment at UCL to enable some of his research.

Le Gros Clark was also great personal friends with Herbert Woollard, then a lecturer in anatomy at UCL. Woollard wrote an anatomical treatise on the anatomy of the tarsier using specimens given to him by Le Gros Clark that he had brought back from Borneo. Woollard was one of many sent for a sabbatical by Elliot Smith to America  (Johns Hopkins in his case) and following that trip he wrote a hugely influential book on experimental anatomical research (‘Recent advances in Anatomy’) that resulted from his experiences there. This book had a profound effect and initiated a kind of renaissance in UK anatomy and greatly widened the scope of what people imagined anatomy was. Woollard then went to Sydney as professor of anatomy but then came back to Bart's with Le Gros Clark and then finally moved to UCL as professor to replace Elliot Smith when he retired. In  1939 however, he died of a heart attack during a lecture to medical students aged only 49. Following this tragedy Le Gros Clark was asked by the provost of UCL to fill the chair. He an his wife agonised about this for a long while, being loath to leave Oxford, but accepted.

UCL had a large staff and the best facilities of any anatomy department at the time. He was about to move back to London when war broke out and the provost called off all new appointments until the end of the war. By then Oxford had changed and had received huge financial support from the Government for research into wound healing and nerve injuries and things looked entirely different so Le Gros Clark chose to stay in Oxford and not move to UCL.

Frederic Wood Jones was another close colleague of Le Gros Clark. He had studied as a student with Arthur Keith at The London Hospital Medical School but then went to work as a medical officer in Cocos-Keeling Atol (the first atol Darwin had visited in 1836). Arthur Keith then recommended him to work with Elliot Smith in Egypt to help with excavations and with descriptions of human archaeological material. Wood Jones wrote a great deal on arboreal life and its influences on early human evolution. ‘Structure and function as seen in the foot’ and ‘The principles of anatomy as seen in the hand’ are classic texts. While Wood Jones was regarded as a great lecturer and communicator he was, however, thought of as unorthodox in his ideas by other anatomists and was an outspoken anti-Darwinian.

In 1930 Le Gros Clark was asked to fill the chair at his old medical school, St Thomas's, which he willingly did. Only 4 years later though, he moved to Oxford, to become professor of anatomy there in 1934. He constantly followed up his interests in anthropology and neuroanatomy. His research initially was on elucidating experimentally, the sorting of various fibres and their connections in the visual tract and their termination in the layers of the visual cortex. He worked on the thalamus and its anatomy and worked out its cortical connections using retrograde degeneration experiments. His work as an experimental neuroanatomist was renowned but he also wrote impressive books on other topics (The tissues of the body, The Antecedents of Man and The fossil evidence for human evolution were in a totally different league to the textbooks written earlier by Keith and Elliot Smith - perhaps with the exception of Keith's Human embryology which remained a classic textbook).

Le Gros Clark was a perceptive judge of character and had a clear perspective on the personalities and the science that followed on from the Piltdown discoveries.  There was always a readership in physical anthropology within the anatomy department in Oxford and latterly, in Le Gros Clark's time at Oxford, Joseph Weiner held this position. As a physiologist, Weiner broadened physical anthropology hugely and moved Oxford on from the 'bone-measuring' era. He worked on environmental adaptation and associated physiological problems. It was Weiner with Kenneth Oakley and Le Gros Clark who finally carried out a proper scientific investigation of the Piltdown remains and proved it fraudulent. Le Gros Clark travelled widely as well as to South and East Africa to work on fossil hominoids and hominins with the Leakeys and with Broom and with Dart (who incidentally was just 2 years his senior and closely paralleled his career as an anatomist). Le Gros is said to have managed his department with a sort of paternal affection that was evident even to undergraduates and continued to work there and in the library in Oxford until shortly before his death in 1971. He had retired in 1962.

To read more about Keith, Elliot Smith and Le Gros Clark and their involvement in Piltdown, click here.

There is more to read about Le Gros Clark and his colleagues in his autobiography; 'Chant of Pleasant exploration'. E & S Livingstone (1968).

Page last modified on 28 jul 10 10:58