Smith, James Edward

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(b. Norwich, England, 2 December 1759: d. Norwich, 17 (March 1828)


Smith was the eldest of the seven children of James Smith, a textile merchant, and Frances Kinderley. During his childhood he showed an interest in botany. Encouraged by several competent botanists who lived in Norwich, Smith wanted to study botany formally, but his father insisted that he should also read medicine. Consequently, in 1781 he went to the University of Edinburgh to study under John Hope, an exponent of the Linnaean method; and in 1783 he moved to London to read anatomy under John Hunter. He came with an introduction from Hope to Joseph Banks, who entertained freely and encouraged young scientists. Smith was with Banks when a letter arrived from Linnaeu#x02019;s executors offering to sell his library, manuscripts, herbarium, and specimens. Having tried and failed to purchase the collection earlier, Banks was disinclined to take it, but he urged Smith to acquire the collection for himself. Smith negotiated the sale for about £1.000 and deposited the collection in rooms in Chelsea. He later moved to other houses in London, and upon his marriage to Pleasance Reeve in 1796, he took his whole establishment back to Norwich.

The Linnaean collections gave Smith both a purpose to his work and standing in scientific society in London. He studied the material, some of which he rearranged and relabeled, and in 1796 he auctioned off the minerals. His first published works were translations of Linnaeus’ Reflections on the Study of Nature (1785) and Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants (1786). He later published a translation of Linnaeus’ Flora Lapponica and, in 1821, Correspondence of Linnaeus and Other Naturalists, which was based on the manuscripts in his possession. Although a devoted admirer and follower of Linnaeus, Smith—once attacked as “bigotedly attached to the Linnean system” —was aware of the need for change and latterly acknowledged the importance of Jussieu’s system. Probably the most important effect of the purchase was the founding in 1788 of the Linnean Society, with a high proportion of foreign members. Smith was elected the first president and held the office until his death. His inaugural address was a “Discourse on the Rise and Progress of Natural History,” and he published many papers in the Transactions of the society. After Smith’s death there was some resentment that he had not left the Linnaean collection to the Society, but the collection was eventually purchased by the Society for £3,000.

The remainder of Smith’s life was shaped and influenced by the collection. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1785: and from 1786 to 1787 he traveled in Europe, where he visited famous sites, libraries, and botanical gardens, and met botanists, including Antoine–Laurent de Jussieu. At Leiden in 1786 he took his M.D. with a thesis “De generatione.” He published a very personal account of his tour, including an assessment of the state of science in the countries he visited. Upon his return he did some work on the irritability of vegetables and read a paper on the subject to the Royal Society in 1788, but most of his work was on taxonomy. He instructed the queen and princesses in botany, and was knighted in 1814. A popular teacher, Smith lectured regularly at the Royal Institution and for a time at the University of Cambridge: but he was mortified by the refusal to appoint him professor of botany on the grounds that he was a Dissenter, and wrote two pamphlets protesting against the system. His textbooks Introduction to Physiological and Systematic” Botany (1807) and Grammar of Botany(1821) went through several editions, including some published in the United States.

At his home in Norwich, Smith grew many of the plants that he studied and he was in contact with gardeners who grew specimens from overseas, described in his Exotic Botany (1804–1805). He prided himself that whenever possible, he personally checked all descriptions that he issued. It was characteristic of his work that before writing on the genus Salix, he spent five years collecting and growing all available kinds of willow. Smith’s importance in the history of botany rests on his ability to popularize the subject and on his meticulous accuracy and comprehensiveness in describing the flora of Great Britain and of other countries previously little known.


I. Original Works. The most enduring memorial of Smith’s work in botany is the series of taxonomic books, which often include fine illustrations. The works are English Botany, 36 vols. (London, 1790–1814; 2nd ed., 12 vols., 1832–1846; 3rd ed., 1863), with colored plates (highly regarded for their accuracy) by James Sowerby; Flora Britannica, 3 vols. (London, 1800–1804), also condensed into a Compendium (1800), both of which were issued in German. The English Flora. 4 vols. (London, 1824–1828). which was not merely a translation, but was revised, was the most complete treatise of its kind; it was followed by the Compendium (1829). He wrote the botanical part of Zoology and Botany of New Holland and the Isles Adjacent. Ȇ (London. +1793-), the first substantial work on the flora of Australia, and edited vols. I-VII of J. Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca (London, 1806–1840). Smith wrote most of the articles on botany in Rees’s Cyclopaedia.

A bibliography of Smith’s publications never has been fully worked out. The most accessible comprehensive list is appended to G. S. Boulger’s article on Smith,in the Dictionary of National Biography, XVIII, 469–472. F. A. Stafleu, Taxonomic Literature (Utrecht, 1967), 449–451. gives more bibliographical details and several references, including one to the Catalogue of Herbarium and Types, which is available on microfilm (IDC 5074). The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers.V. 725–727. –727 lists 57 papers by Smith; and Stafleu. in an article, “Taxonomic Literature.” in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 42 (1928), 80–81, lists all his papers on Australian plants and gives a complete list of the one genus and several species named after Smith. The MS sources are well documented. Lady Smith gave her late husband’s library and over 3,000 of his letters to the Linnean Society; the letters have been recorded by W. R. Dawson. in Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of the Linnean Society of London, Part I: the Smith Papers (London, 1934).

II. Secondary Literature. The official biography of Smith is Memoir and Correspondence of the Late Sir James Edward Smith … Edited by Lady Smith, 2 vols. (London, 1832). Other accounts shortly after Smith’s death are John Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, VI (London. 1831), 830–850; and E. B. Ramsay. “Biographical Notice of the Late Sir J. E. Smith … With an Estimate of His Character and Influence of His Botanical Labours,” in Edinburgh Journal of Science, n.s. 1 (1829), 1–16. See also G. S. Boulger. in the Dictionary of National Biography, Llll (1898), 61–64. Many more articles are listed in J. Britten and G. S. Boulger, A Bibliographical Index of Deceased British and Irish Botanists, 2nd ed., Revised and Completed by A. B. Rendle (London, 1831). For a careful analysis of Smith’s taxonomic decisions see W. J. Hooker’s review of English Flora, vols. 1–11 , in Edinburgh Journal of Science,3 (1825), 159–169: later vols, also were reviewed extensively. Smith’s work in editing Sibthorp was described by W. T. Stean “Sibthorp’s Smith, The ‘Flora Graeca’ and the ‘Florae Graecae Prodromus,’” in Taxon, 16 (1967) 168–178. A comprehensive account of Smith’s life mainly from sources in Norwich, is A. M. Geldart, “Sir James Edward Smith and Some of His Friends,” in Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, 9 (1914), 645–692. with bibliography. Smith’s relationship to the Linnean Society is covered in A. T. Gage, A History of the Linnean Society of London (London, 1938), and in B. D. Jackson, “History of the Linnean Collections, Prepared for the Centenary Anniversary,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1890), 18–34. For probable dates of publication for most of Smith’s 3,045 articles in Rees’s Cyclopaedia, see B. D. Jackson, “Dates of Rees’s Cyclopaedia,” in Journal of Botany, 34 (1896), 307–311.

Diana M. Simpkins

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Smith, James Edward

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