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John Smith (1821–1885)

by Michael Hoare and Joan T. Radford

This article was published:

John Smith (1821-1885), professor of chemistry and experimental physics, was born on 12 December 1821 at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Roderick Smith, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Shier. From 1839 he studied at the Marischal College, Aberdeen (M.A., 1843; M.D., 1844). After a voyage as a surgeon to Australia for his health, in 1847 Smith became lecturer in chemistry and agriculture at Marischal where he conducted important water analyses.

As foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics in the University of Sydney, Smith arrived on 8 September 1852 in the Australian and set up his laboratory at the Sydney College, Hyde Park. On 25 March 1853 he was appointed to the National Board of Education, and served conscientiously during criticism of its policies towards denominational schools. He contributed to the reforms embodied in (Sir) Henry Parkes's Public Schools Act of 1866, was appointed to the new Council of Education, and was president nine times before its demise in 1880. He worked long hours on educational affairs, bringing 'a cultivated intellect, extraordinary patience and industry' to the council's business. Outspoken about the intrusion of 'dogmatic theology' into university affairs, in 1862 he deprecated the 'further extension of denominational education in New South Wales' in evidence before a select committee on the Presbyterian college.

Smith's chemistry classes offered little practical teaching but gave the current elementary theories of chemical structure and reaction; each other year he taught classes in experimental physics and illustrated his lectures with examples of his own pioneer researches in water analyses and photography. Widely recognized as an analyst, he gave evidence at parliamentary select committees on the adulteration of food and the registration and preservation of records; in 1859 at the select committee on water for Melbourne from the Yan Yean reservoir, he condemned the use of lead and tin alloys in reticulation systems. In 1860 he toured auriferous quartz workings in southern New South Wales and Bendigo with E. W. Ward, reporting on methods and machinery. Soon afterwards he left on fourteen months leave to inspect 'the principal laboratories of Europe' and secure new equipment.

In 1864 Smith advised the government to refuse development in designated water reserves at Randwick; in 1867-69 he chaired a royal commission into the water-supply of the city of Sydney and suburbs inquiring into all aspects of supplying water for a potential population of 250,000. His own analyses were competent in regard to inorganic interpretations but showed that in the understanding of organic contaminants his knowledge was outmoded. In 1871-72 he was again on leave in Europe and at Bidston, Cheshire, England, on 11 June 1872 he married Mary (Minnie) Macleod.

In July 1874 Smith was appointed to the Legislative Council and spoke often on educational and scientific-medical matters. In July 1875 he opposed the medical bill, thereby incurring the censure of some of the profession. Fearless in his scientific opinions, the same year he strongly contested the findings of his colleague Archibald Liversidge on the pollution of Lachlan Swamps water. In 1876 he received an honorary LL.D. from the University of Aberdeen and in 1878 was appointed C.M.G.

Smith's commitment to chemistry decreased after the appointment of A. M. Thomson as assistant in 1866, and later of Liversidge to whom he relinquished the chair of chemistry in 1882, retaining responsibility for experimental physics until 1885. He was dean of the faculty of arts in 1884-85 and of the faculty of medicine until 1883, and an ex officio member of senate in 1861-85. He was an early member of the Australian Philosophical Society and honorary secretary of its successor, the Philosophical Society of New South Wales, in 1856-60. Between 1856 and 1864 he read five papers before the society on chemical, meteorological and other subjects. For eighteen years a councillor of the Royal Society of New South Wales, he served ten years as vice-president and two as president. His papers again dealt principally with water analysis and applied physics.

In the 1860s Smith served on the committees of several religious organizations, also as a vice-president of the Young Men's Christian Association and as honorary treasurer of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary in 1866-67. He was an elective trustee of the Australian Museum, vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales and sat on several exhibition commissions, including that of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879-80. 'Self-sacrificing' and 'pre-eminently philanthropic', he was a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society in 1864-72 and 1883-85 and chairman in 1873-80 and 1883-85. In January 1882 he had called at Bombay and joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society, having been influenced by his wife's spiritualism and the lectures of the theosophist Emma Hardinge Britten in Australia in 1878-79. In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.

Upon returning to Sydney Smith found his 'vigor of the old days lacking' and his many activities circumscribed by ill health. Survived by his wife and adopted daughter Nora, he died of phthisis on 12 October 1885 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £19,000; in his will he provided for the annual Smith Prize in the University of Sydney for the best first-year undergraduate in experimental physics. He sacrificed his scientific advancement to devote himself unsparingly to colonial and civic affairs: during his career theoretical and practical knowledge in chemistry and physics outstripped his own reading. 'Undemonstrative' and not brilliant or successful socially, he was a lucid, influential, conscientious teacher and expert committee-man.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Findlay, The Teaching of Chemistry in the Universities of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1935)
  • R. J. W. Le Fevre, ‘The establishment of chemistry within Australian science — contributions from New South Wales’, Royal Society of New South Wales, A Century of Scientific Progress (Syd, 1968)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858, 2, 1258, 1860, 1, 10, 567, 1873-74, 1, 205, 5, 945, 1875-76, 5, 421, 1882, 2 804
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1858-59, 1 (D27)
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 26 (1959)
  • Australasian, 3 Aug 1872, 9 June 1876, 24 Oct, 12 Dec 1885
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Jan, 11 Feb 1876, 13 Oct 1885
  • J. E. Mumford, The Struggle to Develop and Maintain National Education in New South Wales, 1848-1866 (Ph.D. thesis, University of New England, 1975)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Michael Hoare and Joan T. Radford, 'Smith, John (1821–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 December, 1821
Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


12 October, 1885 (aged 63)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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