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John McGarvie Smith (1844–1918)

by Kamoya Peterson

This article was published:

John McGarvie Smith (1844-1918), jeweller, metallurgist and bacteriologist, was born on 8 February 1844 in Sydney, eldest surviving of thirteen children of Scots parents David Milne Smith, tailor of Old South Head Road, and his wife Isabella, née Young. Baptized John by Rev. John McGarvie, he later added McGarvie to his names. Aged 13 he was apprenticed to a jeweller and watchmaker and by 1867 he had set up as a jeweller and watch and chronometer maker—in George Street in the 1870s, then in Hunter Street until 1882. His precision training and commercial sense stood him in good stead. Interested in photography, from 1867 he attended classes in practical and theoretical chemistry at the University of Sydney conducted by Professors Archibald Liversidge and John Smith, and qualified as a metallurgist. He joined the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1874.

A 'dead shot' with rifle and revolver, McGarvie Smith joined the 1st Regiment, Volunteer Rifles, in January 1874, was commissioned lieutenant on 18 May and promoted captain next year. On 4 November 1878 he transferred as 1st lieutenant to the Volunteer Infantry, resigning on 10 October 1882. He and John Nobbs won double crowns as marksmen and in 1876 Smith captained the first Australian rifle team (New South Wales) to visit the United States of America. At Paddington, Sydney, on 7 July 1877 he married 47-year-old Adelaide Elizabeth (d.1908), née Hoalls and widow of Daniel Deniehy; they lived at Denison Street, Woollahra.

In the mid-1880s Smith set up as an assayer and metallurgist and continued to record his occupation as assayer until 1914. He developed a successful treatment for refractory ores at Sunny Corner mine and Broken Hill, and refined the chlorine process of extracting gold at Mount Morgan, Queensland. Although not an originator, he was a perceptive developer, with meticulous techniques, and was regarded as one of the leading metallurgists in Australia.

The royal commission into the introduction of contagious disease among rabbits brought eminent foreign scientists to Sydney in 1888, including a mission sent by Louis Pasteur from Paris and the noted Viennese doctor, Oscar Katz. Smith, who was urged to take up bacteriology by his friend J. F. Elliott, pharmaceutical chemist, studied under Katz at Elizabeth Bay. In the early 1890s he worked on snake venoms at the university with (Sir) Charles Martin and with him published an article, 'The venom of the Australian black snake', in the Journal and Proceedings of the local Royal Society. He collected (and regularly milked) over 500 snakes and much valuable material about the relative virulence of venoms. However, after three years Smith concluded that the difficulties in developing a snakebite anti-toxin were insurmountable. In 1893 he conducted experiments into the germ content of sewer exhaust air for the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage. His recommended exhaust furnaces were too expensive for the board, but its secretary praised the scale of the experiments, which involved twenty dangerous descents in sewers and 'patient and laborious work' in the laboratory.

Australian flocks and herds were scourged by anthrax in the late nineteenth century. In 1888 Dr Germont and Dr Loir had demonstrated the value of Pasteur's two-dose anthrax vaccine, which had been available to Australian pastoralists from 1890, but it would not keep and carried a mortality risk. Before returning to France Loir gave some of his notes to John Alexander Gunn, manager of Yalgogrin station, who developed a single-dose vaccine but with an even higher mortality rate. Loir's replacement Dr Momont hired Smith as an assistant; they shared an interest in toxins. Smith worked on anthrax in the Pasteur Institute's laboratory at Rodd Island and later at Double Bay in 1893-95. He followed up 'his inspiration' for using a matured spore and produced a safe, one-dose vaccine.

Smith and Gunn met in 1895 and on 4 August signed a partnership deed whereby they agreed to pool their knowledge and resources. Neither ever conceded the other's claims to have invented the stable, safe vaccine but their partnership was profitable and basically amicable until Gunn's death in 1910. Smith was licensed as a bacteriologist on 23 June 1897. He travelled widely in Europe and North America inspecting laboratories. He set up a well-equipped laboratory at his home to produce the vaccine: its formula was kept a business secret. He moved himself and his laboratory to Holdsworthy Street, Woollahra, in 1913.

For some years the minister of agriculture W. C. Grahame tried to acquire the process from Smith, who distrusted bureaucracies. In failing health, however, in 1918 he presented his secret formula to Dr Frank Edgar Wall on behalf of the State government. In July he advanced £10,000 to found the McGarvie Smith Institute, run by a board of three government nominees and three pastoralists, to manufacture and distribute his vaccine. He died of pneumonia on 6 September 1918 at his Woollahra home and was buried beside his wife in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery.

Allegedly avaricious and secretive, and reputed to have amassed a fortune, McGarvie Smith was deeply patriotic and convivial with a wide circle of friends. A 'Big Man' in every sense, he possessed 'a remarkable physique which enabled him to put in whole days and nights in investigational work without sleep'. Dogged in pursuit of a solution, he was capable of sustained high-level, close work. The 'wonderful vision' that allowed him to become a fine shot assisted 'him in his study of germ life, and enabled him to make observations that scientists less favoured by nature were incapable of'.

His estate was valued for probate at £28,739: he left the £10,000 loan and his laboratory to the McGarvie Smith Institute, and a life interest in the residue to his two step-daughters, and to Frank Wall, and James Bull, journalist and later secretary of the institute, which became a statutory authority in 1928.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1888-89, 3, p 649, 1894, 3, p 553
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1918, p 73, 544, 2412
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 12 Sept 1918
  • Medical Journal of Australia, Nov 1918, p 400, 419
  • Royal Society of New South Wale, Journal and Proceedings, 53, 1919, p 11, 56, 1922, p 50
  • L. Devlin, ‘Development of anthrax vaccine’ and J. D. Stewart, ‘The advance of vaccination against anthrax in Australia’, Australian Veterinary Journal, 19, 1943, p 102, 148
  • New York Times, 7 June 1876
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Feb 1916, 6, 19 Sept 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Sept 1918
  • J. A. Gunn, papers and newsclippings books (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Kamoya Peterson, 'Smith, John McGarvie (1844–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McGarvie Smith, John

8 February, 1844
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 September, 1918 (aged 74)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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