Smith, Robert Angus

views updated


(b. Glasgow, Scotland, 15 February 1817; d. Colwyn Bay, North Wales, 12 May 1884)


Smith was the son of a manufacturer. Having demonstrated some talent for classics, he prepared at the Glasgow grammar school and at the University of Glasgow for a career in the church. His interest in chemistry, however, was kindled by the public lectures of Thomas Graham at Anderson’s College. After leaving the University of Glasgow, Smith spent a few years as tutor to the children of several families, eventually traveling to Germany with the Reverend H. E. Bridgeman.

During his German sojourn, Smith’s interests in chemistry were reawakened, and in 1839 he made his way to Giessen, where he worked in Liebig’s laboratory. His fellow students at that time included Lyon Playfair and Henry Edward Schunck, both of whom were later his colleagues in Manchester. He took the Ph.D. and returned to Great Britain in 1841. Soon afterward he published a translation of Liebig’s paper “On the Azotised Nutritive Principles of Plants.” Smith’s chemical prospects were dim, and in 1843, when Playfair offered him the post of assistant at the Royal Manchester Institution, he eagerly accepted, ultimately joining Playfair in the “health of towns” investigation. Thus Smith commenced a long and distinguished career as a sanitary chemist.

As early as 1845 Smith began to publish a series of analyses of the air and water of large towns. In 1864 he served as consultant to the Condition of Mines Inquiry and published a report on the analysis of the atmosphere in mines and the methods of analysis that were used. Smith’s studies on atmospheric and water pollution are collected in his Air and Rain (1872).

Smith pioneered also in the chemistry of disinfection. He joined with Frederick Crace-Calvert and Alexander McDougall in experimenting with sewage deodorants in the River Medlock. With McDougall, Smith took out a patent (1854) on a disinfectant powder (largely carbolic acid), which was later manufactured by McDougall and widely used. At Carlisle, McDougall’s powder caught the attention of Lister. By 1869 the Chemical News reported that “By common consent Dr. Smith has become the first authority in Europe on the subject of disinfection” (Chemical News, 9 [1869], 105). Many of Smith’s papers on the subject were integrated into his Disinfectants and Disinfection (1869). His national reputation as a sanitary chemist made Smith the logical choice for the position of first inspector under the Alkali Act of 1863. He was popular with the manufacturers, providing both constructive regulation and much-needed technical advice. He served also as an inspector under the Rivers Pollution Act of 1876.

In 1845 Smith was elected a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and after 1859 served regularly as its president and vice-president. His honors included election as a fellow of the Royal Society (1857) and honorary degrees from Glasgow (1881) and Edinburgh (1882). His concern with the local scientific community is reflected in his historical works, for example, his sketch of the life of Dalton and the atomic theory (1856) and his history of the Manchester scientific community (1883).


I. Original Works. More than 45 of Smith’s articles are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V , 731–732; VIII , 974; XI , 440; XVIII , 812. His major works are “Memoir of John Dalton ... and History of the Atomic Theory Up to His Time,” in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. 2nd ser.,13 (1856), 1–29; Disinfectants and Disinfection (Edinburgh, 1869); Air and Rain, the Beginnings of Chemical Climatology (London. 1872); and “A Centenary of Science in Manchester,” in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 3rd ser., 9 (1883), 1–475.

II. Secondary Literature. The best account Smith’s life are P. J. Hartog, in the Dictionary of NationalBiography, XVIII , 520–522; H. E. Schunck, “Memoir of Robert Angus Smith,” in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 3rd ser., 10 (1887), 90–102; and T. E. Thorpe, in Nature, 30 (1884), 104–105. On Smith’s career as Alkali Acts inspector, see R. MacLeod, “Alkali Acts Administration. 1863–1884,” in Victorian Studies, 9 (1965), 85–112. An excellent article, A. Gibson and W. V. Farrar,”Robert Angus Smith, F.R.S, and “Sanitary Science,” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28 (1974), 241–262, appeared too late for inclusion in the preparation of this article.

Robert H. Kargon