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Smith, Louis Lawrence (1830–1910)

by Guy Featherstone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Louis Smith, by Henry Sadd

Louis Smith, by Henry Sadd

State Library of Victoria, H90.159/7

Louis Lawrence Smith (1830-1910), medical practitioner and politician, was born on 15 May 1830 in London, son of Edward Tyrell Smith, theatrical entrepreneur, and his wife Magdelana Nannette, née Gengoult. He attended St Saviour's Grammar School, Southwark, in 1841-46 and then was apprenticed for five years to the surgeon Sir Thomas Longmore. In 1848 he studied at the Ecole de Médecine, Paris; next year he attended lectures of the London Society of Apothecaries, and in 1850 began his training at Westminster Hospital (L.S.A., 1852). For a while he practised with Dr R. J. Culverwell, proprietor of a pathological museum. In 1852 he migrated as ship's surgeon in the Oriental, arriving in Melbourne on 11 December.

Briefly on the goldfields, Smith opened a surgery in Bourke Street in July 1853 and by 1862 had expanded it to include a museum of anatomy and the Polytechnic Hall. He regarded his practice as a speculative venture and by 1863 was spending £3000 a year on newspaper advertisements. He began consultations by post, at a fee of £1 per prescription, and in 1860 he first published his annual Medical Almanac which emphasized home treatment. He also developed his popular approach through articles in the Australian Journal from 1865 and in cheap pamphlets produced in the 1860s.

Smith argued that advertising showed the worth of his qualifications and thus exposed quacks. He also claimed that his practice gave him an unusually wide range of experience; but his methods were opposed by many doctors and some laymen. His museum was closed in 1869 because it offended 'taste'. Notorious for his treatment of venereal disease, in 1858 he was acquitted of a charge of procuring an abortion; the reputation stuck. Undaunted he ignored the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association when it was formed in 1879, continued advertising and was said to be making £10,000 a year by 1880.

Smith entered politics perhaps rather for prestige and influence than on principle. As 'the people's candidate' for South Bourke, from 1859 to 1865 he seems to have won Legislative Assembly elections by force of personality. His early career was marred by his assault on J. D. Wood in the House on 15 May 1863. He won Richmond in 1871, but lost popularity and was defeated in 1874 when he opposed Francis's reform proposals. In 1872 a select committee had found that he acted imprudently but without corrupt intentions in soliciting government advertisements for the Times and Mines in which he had had an interest; in 1873 he was accused of approaching the commissioner of railways to gain advantage.

As a supporter of Berry Smith again won Richmond in 1877, but in 1881 he helped O'Loghlen to defeat the government and in July was rewarded with a ministerial post without portfolio. But the ministry was weak and lost office in 1883; Smith was defeated. Returned for Mornington in 1886, he opposed the Gillies-Deakin coalition, but supported Munro and Shiels until January 1893, when he crossed the floor to support the scheming Patterson. He lost at the election in September 1894, but stood again in 1895 and 1901, and polled last of the twenty-nine candidates for the 1897 Federal Convention. In the House Smith had spoken often, especially on manufacturing and agriculture. He chaired three select committees and was a member of several others; he served on the royal commission on coal in 1889-91, and was a member of the Phylloxera Board until 1893. He was a promoter of coal exploration and in 1876 had been involved in a proposed tramway from Cloncurry to the Gulf in Queensland.

Until 1881 Smith made the Polytechnic Hall available for theatricals, especially in the 1860s, and he associated with visiting actors such as G. V. Brooke, T. B. Sullivan and the Keans. In November 1867 he organized a free public open-air dinner during the Duke of Edinburgh's tour; the viands were rushed when the royal visitor did not appear. He was also associated with the Australian Journal, the Ballarat Sun in 1864, the Times and Mines and the Melbourne Journal in 1894. Most of his time and at least £20,000 were devoted to his model farms at Dandenong, Narre Warren, Nunawading and Beaconsfield on which he raised pigs and sheep. From 1863 he had racehorse stables at Emerald Hill and later at Kensington; he liked acting as steward at suburban meetings and rode in his young days. He was a patron of the Richmond Football Club, was prominent in the Yarra Yarra Rowing Club, and bred bloodhounds.

Smith joined the Chamber of Manufactures in 1881, was several times vice-president and was a leading spokesman for many years. He concentrated on wines, growing the grapes on L. L. Vale at Nunawading; he won success at overseas exhibitions. President in 1883 of the Victorian Winegrowers' Association, he wanted protection against imports. In 1898 he retired as chairman of the Exhibition Trustees, but continued his medical practice and developed his extensive art collection.

By the late 1890s Smith suffered from gout. He died of pneumonia at East Melbourne on 8 July 1910. Charming and 'a thorough Bohemian at home among all classes', he was small and dressed fashionably, often sporting a diamond ring. As a conversationalist he was sparkling and witty, and noted for his gaiety and boisterous mirth. Although his success might have been won unscrupulously (the Bulletin dubbed him ££ Smith) it was often the result of enthusiasm and self-confidence, combined with an inherited flair for promotion. His championing of local industry, especially wines, showed an awareness of genuine colonial interests.

Smith was twice married: first about 1860 to Sarah Ann Taylor (d.1882), by whom he had ten children; and second on 15 May 1883 to Marion Jane Higgins, who survived him and by whom he had four children. Of these Louise (1884-1962), a pianist, settled in Paris and in 1932 founded the Lyre-bird Press; Tom Roberts's portrait of her as a child is in the National Gallery of Victoria. Sir Harold Gengoult (b.1890) was lord mayor of Melbourne in 1931-34.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Mandle, ‘Games People Played: Cricket & Football in England & Victoria in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Historical Studies, no 60, Apr 1973
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 Dec 1891
  • Australasian, 9 July 1910
  • Truth, 22, 29 Aug 1914
  • A. Williams, Doctor L. L. Smith—‘The Enterprising L. L.’ (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1957)
  • manuscript material (Museum of Medical Society of Victoria and AMA Library, Parkville, Melbourne)
  • Colonial Secretary's register, 1876 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Guy Featherstone, 'Smith, Louis Lawrence (1830–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-louis-lawrence-4610/text7585, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 28 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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