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The Piltdown Mystery: An Exchange

In response to:

A Phony Ancestor from the November 8, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In reference to Lord Zuckerman’s article “A Phony Ancestor” [NYR, November 8, 1990], I was somewhat surprised that he felt my two Piltdown volumes, namely The Piltdown Papers and Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery, represent nothing more than an “attempt to unmask the [Piltdown] forger or joker.”

One of my primary goals in undertaking this project had been to elevate Piltdown research out of the realm of wild speculation and to deal with the issues involved as a serious and legitimate exercise in the history of science. To suppose as Lord Zuckerman does in his article that these Piltdown books and my declared commitment to the Keith-Dawson hypothesis is based largely on a sense of misguided loyalty to a former “friend” that evolved into an “obsession,” is far from the truth. I had spoken with Ian Langham only once in 1982 during a brief visit he made to the United States en route from Sydney, Australia to London. Our subsequent relationship was founded on a developing correspondence relating to our common research interests at the Royal College of Surgeons. In accepting the invitation to complete Langham’s unfinished work on Piltdown, I was (despite my own earlier suspicions of Sir Arthur Keith’s involvement in the Piltdown affair) obliged to retrace his footsteps and to evaluate and reconstruct his particular research findings. Had I felt, during the course of this work, that Langham’s brief was as “flimsy” as Lord Zuckerman concludes then I would have dispatched it accordingly.

Regrettably, Lord Zuckerman singles out for comment points which are misleading if not viewed in their proper context. Take for example the issue of the anonymous article published on December 21, 1912 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). It is now known to have been written by Sir Arthur Keith two days before the Piltdown remains were unveiled at the Geological Society on Wednesday, December 18, 1912. The date of this article’s execution is important because it alerts one to the crucial matter of its contents, which as I have noted in Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery prompted Sir Arthur Smith Woodward’s letter to Arthur Swayne Underwood (dated December 30, 1912 in The Piltdown Papers: 1.3.13) questioning its authorship. Contrary to Lord Zuckerman’s assertion, detailed information on the site’s location had not been revealed at the above meeting of the Geological Society. With the single exception of the BMJ article and an anonymous report in the Manchester Guardian (written, incidentally, also by Keith) and published on December 19, all other reports of the meeting that appeared at the time only noted that the gravel bed in which the remains had been found was located “near Piltdown Common”—and nothing more. How could Keith have known?

Similarly Lord Zuckerman glosses over the arguments drawn from Joseph Weiner’s transcript of the interview conducted with Keith in November 1953. Here, in addition to admitting that he had destroyed all of Dawson’s correspondence, Keith noted that he had met Dawson prior to the famous meeting in 1912, and then suddenly (according to Weiner) he retracted this statement, saying, “No, it was in fact afterwards…” Although at the time this was accepted as an innocent slip, why did Keith subsequently go out of his way to establish in Weiner’s mind the fact that this meeting had been after, and not before?

Then there is Keith’s admission in the same interview that Dawson had confided in him the knowledge that the Piltdown jaw had been stained! Until 1953 everyone had been laboring under the false impression that all of the pieces discovered at Piltdown after May 1912 (when Woodward took charge of things) had not been chemically treated. Why had Dawson elected to tell Keith and not Woodward? But perhaps more important, why had Keith remained silent on this crucial issue when Marston raised it in the late 1930s and again after the War?

Taken collectively, the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that Keith was hiding something, and what he was hiding was, I believe, his earlier relationship with Dawson and an intimate knowledge of the forgery.

There are also other similar pieces of evidence which serve to enhance this case—all of which Lord Zuckerman fails to address and evaluate.

Furthermore, I find it amazing that after having read both The Piltdown Papers (which is dismissed as a “small volume”—it is in fact 282 pages!) and Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery, Lord Zuckerman reaches the conclusion that I have exonerated Charles Dawson! The crux of the Langham-Spencer hypothesis is that Keith and Dawson had collaborated in the production of the forgery.

With all due respect I feel compelled to note here other erroneous and misleading statements that appear in Lord Zuckerman’s article. For example, in footnote 17 he suggests that the Canadian anatomist, Davidson Black, had “no connection with the Piltdown story.” Possibly he has forgotten Black’s visit to Piltdown during the summer of 1914 where he assisted Dawson and Woodward in the excavations and is credited with having discovered there rolled fragments of teeth of Rhinoceros etruscus (see The Piltdown Papers: 3.1.28). In footnote 17, it is also stated that Grafton Elliot Smith’s interest had been peripheral to his anthropological studies in 1912 and that he had not examined the Piltdown cranial casts until “Keith had pointed out [in the summer of 1913] Smith Woodward’s error.” Elsewhere in the body of Lord Zuckerman’s article he notes that Smith was able to present the results of a preliminary study of the Piltdown cranial casts to the Geological Society of London on the evening of December 18, 1912! As the published record clearly shows Smith was at this early stage not a disinterested bystander, as Lord Zuckerman would have us believe, but rather intimately involved in the reception and initial interpretation of the Piltdown remains.

Lord Zuckerman notes from personal experience, that Keith was a “quiet, kind man,” but this has no relevance to the case at hand. It is not Keith’s social graces that are an issue here, but his behavior as a scientist, and as such I feel it necessary to comment on the assertion that Keith’s behavior during the Piltdown debates was above reproach. It is also the opinion of a number of Keith’s contemporaries that he had not behaved as one might have expected: see for example the letter from Grafton Elliot Smith to Alfred C. Haddon (dated April 8, 1914 in The Piltdown Papers: 3.1.13). Here Smith noted among other things “Keith’s game of deliberately fouling the pitch…” and also “to publish stuff which he (knew) to be false….” Indeed, much the same sentiments surface in a letter from William J. Sollas to Robert Broom written almost a decade later, in which the former notes in reference to Keith “[that he] is indeed the most arrant humbug and artful climber in the anthropological world…. He makes the rashest statements in the face of evidence. Never quotes an author but to misrepresent him…and indeed there is scarcely a single crime in which he is not adept….” (see G. H. Findlay, Dr. Robert Broom, Paleontologist and Physician 1866–1951, published by A. A. Balkema, Cape Town, 1972, p. 53).

Finally, I can only assume that Lord Zuckerman’s attempt to resuscitate the case against Martin Hinton is perhaps a tactical move to camouflage his inability to confront this new case and its supporting evidence because as he states: “I knew Arthur Keith well.” Hinton did have a declared interest in hoaxes, for as he himself wrote in his Who’s Who entry: “[he had] studied many hoaxes, including the Loch Ness Monster…,” but surely this cannot be taken as a kind of confession as Lord Zuckerman suggests. Nor does Lord Zuckerman’s attempt to establish a motivation for Hinton’s complicity in a “Lamarckian joke” bear scrutiny. However, as I point out in Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery (pp. 175–178), the facts harmonize with the idea that Hinton may have suspected foul play (post 1926), but the available archival evidence does not establish his complicity in the affair. Thus, if Lord Zuckerman is now seriously offering that the Hinton case as a competing hypothesis then he has much to explain.

Frank Spencer
Queens College
New York City

Lord Zuckerman replies:

Dr. Spencer’s letter provides no more basis than did his book for the charge that Sir Arthur Keith was the hoaxer who salted the Piltdown gravel pit. As his main piece of “evidence,” he once again harps on the fact that Keith’s weekly diary indicates that he was the author of an anonymous “article” that appeared in the British Medical Journal, and that Keith wrote it two days before the meeting on Wednesday, December 18, 1912, at which Mr. Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward described the circumstances and nature of their finds.

According to Dr. Spencer, the article—as I have already pointed out, it was in fact the main weekly editorial—contained “privileged” information that had not been disclosed by Dawson and Smith Woodward. It did nothing of the kind. Smith Woodward had shown Keith his specimens a fortnight before the day of the meeting at which everything in the editorial, including what it said about the site of the find, was revealed. This is clear from the published record of the proceedings in the Geological Society’s journal. I rule out the possibility that the Society published an American edition of its journal that did not include the two maps that appear in the copy in the Society’s library, and on one of which, and in accordance with what is said in the text, the site of the find is marked.

As quoted by Dr. Spencer, the note in Keith’s diary which specifically refers to the editorial merely reads “I write for BMJ on the meeting Monday night.” When he showed Keith the remains before the meeting, Smith Woodward may not have told him the precise whereabouts of the find, but before allowing it to appear in print on the following Saturday, Keith would, in any event, have had to revise his Monday draft in the light of the way the Wednesday meeting went, and in his amendments referred, to the extent that he did, to the mass of information about the site that Dawson revealed to the audience. Dr. Spencer asks “how could Keith have known” about the site? Unless the Geological Society’s account of the proceedings was not a true record, the answer is that only if he had fallen asleep when Dawson was speaking could he have failed to know.

Dr. Spencer also refers to a letter sent by Smith Woodward to his dental friend, Swayne Underwood, asking whether he had written the editorial. The answer was “no,” and neither the question nor the answer indicates that either of them thought that there was anything untoward about its contents. The Natural History Museum Library takes the BMJ, so I have learned, because of its Entomological and Zoological Departments’ interest in insect-borne and helminthic diseases. I would doubt if it was part of Smith Woodward’s regular reading, and presumably, when told by a museum colleague about the piece, he may well have wondered why a medical journal had bothered to write about a meeting that had taken place at the Geological Society. As the piece was noncontroversial, I should imagine that he was pleased.

What I find surprising, however, is that for all Dr. Spencer’s apparent fascination with archival niceties, he did not read the BMJ as closely as he might have done in the circumstances. He refers only to the “article” which appeared on December 21, 1912, and to which his text implies that his attention was drawn by the notes left by Ian Langham. He does not seem to be aware—certainly he does not tell his readers—that the issue of the following week (December 28), included the second part of the editorial—as usual again anonymous—that began with the editor’s apology that because of “the exigencies of space” he had not been able to publish the whole piece in one go. The continuation stated that Elliot Smith—with whom Keith was to quarrel a year or so later—had made the most notable contribution to the meeting with his commentary on the “brain cast” that was given him by Smith Woodward, and that “the chief divergence of opinion” in the discussion related to the antiquity of the finds, with Sir Arthur Keith—mentioned by name—regarding them as earlier than Pleistocene and possibly Pliocene, that is to say, the age to which some of the planted fossil animal teeth may have belonged.

Dr. Spencer writes that I have “glossed” over the significance that can be drawn from the fact that Keith, when aged eighty-seven, and only two years before his death, contradicted himself when answering questions put to him by Drs. Weiner and Oakley about the precise dates of events that had occurred forty years before. I do so again. It is nonsensical to expect that a man of that age could be relied upon to be absolutely accurate about such details, as nonsensical as it is ridiculous to find suspicious, as does Dr. Spencer, the fact that some two and a half weeks after the famous meeting, Keith, accompanied by his wife, had gone by train from London to Uckfield, and that, as he recorded in his diary, after lunching there the two had set out on foot to see the by-now celebrated Piltdown gravel pit. When after a six-mile walk they got near their goal, some boys told them where to look, but, as Keith recorded, they “didn’t see the gravel pit anywhere.” Why, asks Dr. Spencer in his book, did Keith so “abruptly” end his search and turn back? Instead of implying that he did so because he had no need to revisit the exact spot where he had committed the crime, Dr. Spencer might perhaps have considered that January 4 was in the depth of winter, that the middle-aged couple still had a six-mile walk back to Uckfield, and that Lady Keith might well have said, “Come on Arthur, do please let’s stop searching. I’m tired and cold. Do remember that we have a long walk ahead of us and that it will be getting dark by the time we are back to Uckfield.” Keith noted in his diary that they had walked “upwards of twelve miles,” and were tired.

It is also nonsense for him to bring Davidson Black into the story of the fraud merely because he once visited the pit with Smith Woodward—as no doubt others did after the Geological Society’s meeting. And as for Elliot Smith, he recorded (p. 64 of Dr. Spencer’s book) that he did not examine the Piltdown cranial fragments until six months after the meeting, when again, contrary to what Dr. Spencer now deviously says, he commented not on the “cranial casts” but only on a cast that had been made to show the possible configuration of the brain that had been enclosed in the Piltdown skull as it had been reconstructed by Smith Woodward with the help of F. O. Barlow, his “preparator,” and who, in an article published after Dr. Spencer’s books must have gone to the press, Dr. Caroline Grigson tells us may not have been entirely honest in the affair (New Scientist, January 13, 1990).

If Dr. Spencer had known about Martin Hinton’s entry in Who’s Who, to which he now speciously refers, I very much doubt whether he would have removed him from his roll of possible suspects merely because it would have prejudiced the credibility of a group of amateur paleontologists to which he belonged, or, if found out, because it would have ruined his chances of getting a permanent job in the museum. Hinton was a prankster. There are several anecdotes which illustrate this side of his sense of humor—and if anything, he would have been amused had an amateur or group of amateurs been able to fool an authoritarian professional paleontologist like Smith Woodward. Unfortunately, the joke got out of hand. Unfortunately, too, Harrison Matthews, whose 1981 series of articles on the hoax Dr. Spencer clearly failed to read carefully, if at all, had also had no reason to refer to Hinton’s Who’s Who entry—in which Hinton confessed his interest in hoaxes—which first appeared in 1935, some twenty years before Piltdown was declared a fraud. Had Harrison Matthews done so, his suspicions about Hinton would undoubtedly have been given a major boost. The same can be said about the contribution to the debate that was made by Dr. L. B. Halstead, a geologist on the staff of Reading University. He followed up an article that was published in Nature in November 1978 with a letter (Nature, February 1979), in which he said that a short paragraph, in which he had referred to Hinton’s possible involvement in the hoax, had been “edited out” of the article. Dr. Halstead gives no specific reason for his suspicion other than that he knew of Hinton’s dislike of Smith Woodward, and that he would have had no difficulty in getting hold of the remains that were planted. He, too, failed to refer to Who’s Who. I did so adventitiously. I had previously enquired about the fate—and disappearance—of the false killer whale skeleton that I had brought him from South Africa in 1930.

There is nothing to add to what I have already written in order to explain to Dr. Spencer why his case against Arthur Keith is a pack of nonsense. Nor, I can add, did I see Hinton salting the gravel pit. But like many of his colleagues in the museum, I knew him to be both a charming eccentric and a prankster. In so far as there is any evidence, precise or otherwise, about the identity of the hoaxer, it points more to him than to anyone else.

Piltdown was a prank that went too far. It became a hoax that showed that in the days before fraud in science became, alas, not infrequent, distinguished and honest scientists could be as gullible, as credulous, as the next man when they try to find answers to apparently scientific problems that can have no scientific solution. Dr. Spencer’s book(s) are not what he calls “a serious and legitimate exercise in the history of science.” They have nothing to do with the history of the growth of scientific knowledge and the development of scientific concepts. They are merely an unsuccessful and pretentious attempt to unravel a scientific prank that took in more than just the man at whom it was apparently aimed.

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