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William Beattie Smith (1854–1921)

by E. Cunningham Dax

This article was published:

William Beattie Smith (1854-1921), medical practitioner, was born on 13 March 1854 at Walker, Northumberland, England, son of William Beattie Smith, surgeon, and his wife Jane Ann, née Lee. He was educated at the Campsie House School, Musselburgh, Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh. A licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh (1876), and licentiate (1876) and fellow (1879) of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, he had studied mental diseases under (Sir) Thomas Smith Clouston, the outstanding teacher of his day. Beattie Smith practised at Stockton-upon-Tees, Durham.

In 1881 he visited Australia for his health and almost immediately was appointed resident medical officer at the Ararat Lunatic Asylum, Victoria. After a few months he was promoted to deputy medical superintendent at Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, then in 1888 returned as medical superintendent to Ararat where for occupational therapy he enthusiastically developed a small wine-growing industry. In 1899 he became superintendent at the Kew Lunatic Asylum.

Beattie Smith made several major contributions to the improvement of mental health care. He encouraged better conditions and treatment for patients and introduced a 'boarding out' scheme such as he had seen on a return visit to Scotland. Ahead of its time in Australia, it was not successful. Recognizing the importance of good nursing he recommended in 1887 a systematic plan of teaching and insisted that attendants should wear uniforms. He complained that his efforts would be ineffective until classes were made compulsory and recognition given for qualifications; nevertheless, by 1902 there were six trained female nurses. Concerned also at the lack of knowledge of mental diseases among general practitioners, Beattie Smith began instruction for medical students at Kew in 1899; their attendance for lectures and demonstrations was compulsory but there was no examination.

One of the most colourful characters in the history of Victorian psychiatry, Beattie Smith had an imposing presence, a handsome appearance and a close-trimmed beard. He was forthright and an autocratic disciplinarian who never feared to accept responsibility or to force through his innovations. But he took offence easily, was impatient with his superiors and colleagues and caustic in his communication. In 1900 he came into open conflict with the government pathologist J. E. Neild and in 1902, when acting inspector of asylums, resigned after a disagreement with the chief secretary. His resignation was promptly accepted.

When he left the Chief Secretary's Department Beattie Smith went into private practice as Melbourne's first full-time alienist, mostly dealing with medico-legal questions. However he continued to lecture to university students until 1907 and to serve on a committee to advise the chief secretary, with Drs J. W. Y. Fishbourne and J. W. Springthorpe. The committee played a part in the reform of the Lunacy Act in 1903 and 1914; in the latter, voluntary treatment was introduced sixteen years before the corresponding English legislation.

Beattie Smith died, unmarried, of arteriosclerotic heart disease at his East Melbourne home on 12 December 1921, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. He left £1000 to the University of Melbourne for an annual lecture on insanity, to be named after him. It has been held since 1928.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • C. R. D. Brothers, Early Victorian Psychiatry 1835-1905 (Melb, 1962)
  • K. F. Russell, The Melbourne Medical School 1862-1962 (Melb, 1977)
  • Government Gazette (Victoria), 1888-1902.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. Cunningham Dax, 'Smith, William Beattie (1854–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 May 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
  • Beattie Smith, William

13 March, 1854
Walker, Northumberland, England


12 December, 1921 (aged 67)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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