Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, James Edward
SMITH, Sir JAMES EDWARD (1759–1828), botanist, was born at Norwich on 2 Dec. 1759. He was the eldest child of James Smith, a wealthy nonconformist wool merchant, by his wife Frances, only daughter of the Rev. John Kinderley. Being delicate, Smith was at first educated at home. He inherited a love of flowers from his mother, but did not begin the study of botany as a science until he was eighteen, and then, curiously enough, on the very day of Linné's death (Transactions of the Linnean Soc. vol. vii.) He was guided in his early studies by his friends, James Crowe of Lakenham, Hugh Rose, John Pitchford, and Rev. Henry Bryant; and, though originally destined for a commercial career, was sent in 1781 to the university of Edinburgh to study medicine. Here he studied botany under Dr. John Hope, one of the earliest teachers of the Linnæan method, won a gold medal awarded by him, and established a natural history society. In September 1783 he came to London to study under John Hunter and Dr. William Pitcairn, with an introduction from Dr. Hope to Sir Joseph Banks [q. v.], then president of the Royal Society. On the death of the younger Linnæus in that year the whole of the library, manuscripts, herbarium, and natural history collections made by him and by his father were offered to Banks for a thousand guineas. Banks declined the offer, but on his recommendation Smith purchased it, with his father's consent. Subsequent offers from John Sibthorp [q. v.] and from the Empress of Russia were received by the executors. In September 1784 Smith took apartments in Paradise Row, Chelsea, where the Linnæan collections arrived in the following month. The total cost, including freight, was 1,088l. It is stated (Memoir and Correspondence of Sir J. E. Smith, edited by Lady Smith, i. 126) that Gustavus III of Sweden, who had been absent in France, hearing of the despatch of the collections, vainly sent a belated vessel to the Sound to intercept the ship which carried them. This probably apocryphal story is perpetuated on the portrait of Smith published in Thornton's ‘Temple of Flora.’
‘With no premeditated design of relinquishing physic as a profession’ (op. cit. p. 128), Smith now became entirely devoted to natural history, and mainly to botany. During the following winter Banks and Dryander went through the collections with him at Chelsea, and Pitchford urged him to prepare ‘a Flora Britannica, the most correct that can appear in the Linnæan dress’ (op. cit. p. 130). Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1785, he made his first appearance as an author by translating the preface to Linné's ‘Museum Regis Adolphi Frederici,’ under the title of ‘Reflexions on the Study of Nature,’ in 1785. In June 1786 he started on a continental tour, and after obtaining a medical degree at Leyden (23 June), with a thesis ‘De Generatione,’ he travelled through Holland, France, Italy, and Switzerland. He visited Allamand and Van Royen at Leyden, the widow of Rousseau (for whom, as a botanist of the Linnæan school, he had a great admiration), Broussonet at Montpellier, Gerard at Cottignac, the Marquis Durazzo at Genoa, Mascagni the anatomist at Sienna, Sir William Hamilton and the Duke of Gloucester at Naples, Bonnet, De Saussure, and others at Geneva, La Chenal at Basle, and Herman at Strasburg. At the same time he carefully examined the picture galleries, the herbaria, and botanical libraries en route. His tour is fully described in the three-volume ‘Sketch’ which he first published in 1793.
Before his departure Smith appears to have broached to his friends, Samuel Goodenough [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Carlisle, and Thomas Marsham the idea of superseding a somewhat somnolent natural history` society, of which they were members, by one bearing the name of Linnæus. On his return to England in the autumn of 1787, he left Chelsea, with a view to practising as a physician in London, and in 1788 took a house in Great Marlborough Street. There the first meeting of the Linnean Society was held on 8 April 1788. Smith was elected president, and delivered an ‘Introductory Discourse on the Rise and Progress of Natural History.’ Marsham became secretary, Goodenough treasurer, and Dryander librarian. The society started with thirty-six fellows, sixteen associates, and about fifty foreign members, mostly those naturalists whose acquaintance Smith had made during his tour. Banks joined the new society as an honorary member. From this period Smith gave lectures at his own house on botany and zoology, numbering among his pupils the Duchess of Portland, Viscountess Cremorne, and Lady Amelia Hume, and about the same time he became lecturer on botany at Guy's Hospital. In 1789 he republished, under the title of ‘Reliquiæ Rudbeckianæ,’ those wood-blocks of plants, prepared by Olof Rudbeck for his ‘Campi Elysii,’ which had escaped the great fire at Upsal in 1702, and during the four following years he issued parts of several illustrated botanical works, which, owing to want of patronage, he failed to complete. In 1790, however, he began the publication of what has proved his most enduring work, though as his name did not appear on the first three volumes, it is still often known as Sowerby's ‘English Botany,’ from the name of its illustrator, James Sowerby [q. v.] It formed thirty-six octavo volumes, with 2,592 plates, comprising all known British plants, with the exception of the fungi; its publication was not completed until 1814. In 1791 Smith was chosen, by the interest of Goodenough and Lady Cremorne, to arrange the queen's herbarium, and to teach her and her daughters botany and zoology at Frogmore; but some passages in his ‘Tour,’ praising Rousseau, and speaking of Marie-Antoinette as Messalina, although they were removed from the second edition, gave offence at court. Soon after his marriage, which took place in 1796, Smith retired to his native city, only coming to London for two or three months in each year to deliver an annual course of lectures at the Royal Institution, which he continued down to 1825. He was, however, annually re-elected president of the Linnean Society until his death. After he had completed his important ‘Flora Britannica,’ in three octavo volumes, 1800–4, Smith was chosen by the executors to edit the ‘Flora Græca’ of his friend, John Sibthorp [q. v.] He published the ‘Prodromus’ in two octavo volumes in 1806 and 1813, and completed six volumes of the ‘Flora’ itself before his death. In 1807 appeared the first edition of his most successful work, ‘The Introduction to Physiological and Systematic Botany,’ which passed through six editions during the author's lifetime. In 1808, on the retirement through illness, which terminated fatally, of the Rev. William Wood, who had contributed the botanical articles to Rees's ‘Cyclopædia’ down to ‘Cyperus,’ the editor applied for assistance to Smith. He wrote 3,348 botanical articles, among which were fifty-seven biographies of eminent botanists, including Adanson, Clusius, Peter Collinson, and William Curtis. All were signed ‘S.’ as he disliked anonymous writing. In 1814, when the prince regent accepted the position of patron of the Linnean Society, Smith received the honour of knighthood. In 1818 his friend, Thomas Martyn (1735–1825) [q. v.], professor of botany at Cambridge, who was then over eighty years of age, invited him to lecture for him; but the university authorities objected, on the ground that Smith was a unitarian. The incident led him to write two somewhat acrimonious pamphlets.
What has been described as his ‘last and best work,’ ‘The English Flora,’ occupied Smith during the last seven years of his life, the first two volumes appearing in 1824, the third in 1825, and the fourth in March 1828, on the very day when he was seized with his fatal illness. The ‘Compendium,’ in one volume, appeared posthumously in 1829, and the fifth volume, containing the mosses by Sir W. J. Hooker, and the fungi by the Rev. M. J. Berkeley, in 1833–6. Smith died in Surrey Street, Norwich, on 17 March 1828, and was buried at Lowestoft, in the vault of the Reeve family. He married, in 1796, Pleasance, only daughter of Robert Reeve of Lowestoft; she is separately noticed [see Smith, Pleasance, Lady].
Sprengel's eulogy of Smith as μέγα κῦδος Βριτννῶν is extravagant, but his easy, fluent style, happy illustration, extensive knowledge, and elegant scholarship, both in his lectures and in his writings, did much to popularise botany. His possession of the Linnæan collections invested him, in his own opinion, with the magician's wand, and he set a value on his judgment in all botanical questions which his own attainments did not wholly warrant (B. D. Jackson, Guide to the Literature of Botany, p. xxxvii). But his ownership of the Linnæan treasures secured him a great influence abroad, and he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, the Imperial Academy ‘Naturæ Curiosorum,’ and the academies of Stockholm, Upsal, Turin, Lisbon, Philadelphia, and New York. His name was commemorated by Dryander and Salisbury in Aiton's ‘Hortus Kewensis’ by the genus Smithia, a small group of sensitive leguminous plants. His library and collections, including those of Linnæus, were offered by his executors to the Linnean Society for 4,000l., and ultimately bought by private subscription for 3,000l., and presented to the society.
There is a bust of Smith by Chantrey at the Linnean Society's apartments, an engraving from which forms the frontispiece of the ‘Memoir;’ another engraving, by Audinet, appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1828, and was reissued with the date 1831 in Nichols's ‘Literary Illustrations,’ vol. vi., and there is a folio engraving in Thornton's ‘Temple of Flora.’Smith was the author of several hymns in the collection used in the Octagon Chapel, Norwich, of which he was a deacon at the time of his death. He contributed a paper ‘On the Irritability of Vegetables’ (to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’); ‘De Filicum generibus’ (to the ‘Memoirs of the Turin Academy,’ 1790–1, pp. 401–22); fifty-two papers to the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society,’ vols. i.–xiii., and a slight memoir of John Ray [q. v.] to Derham's ‘Memorials’ of Ray in 1846. The following are his independent works: 1. ‘Reflections on the Study of Nature,’ translated from Linnæus's preface to his ‘Museum Regis Adolphi Frederici,’ London, 1785, 8vo; Dublin, 1786. 2. ‘Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants, from the Latin of Linnæus,’ London, 1786, 8vo; Dublin, 1786. 3. ‘Dissertatio quædam de Generatione complectens,’ Leyden, 1786. 4. ‘Disquisitio de Sexu Plantarum cum annot. J. E. Smith et P. M. A. Broussonet,’ from Linné's ‘Amœnitates Academicæ,’ vol. x., London, 1787, 8vo. 5. ‘Introductory Discourse on the Rise and Progress of Natural History,’ from the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society,’ i. 1–56, London, 1791, 4to, translated into Italian by G. Fontana, Pavia, 1792, 8vo, and into Greek, with notes, by Demetrios Poulos, 1807, 8vo. 6. ‘Reliquiæ Rudbeckianæ,’ London, 1789, fol. 7. ‘Plantarum Icones hactenus ineditæ,’ three fasciculi, 1789, 1790, and 1791, fol., with seventy-five plates and seventy-five pages of Latin text. 8. ‘Icones pictæ Plantarum rariorum,’ three fasciculi, 1790–3, fol., with eighteen coloured plates and thirty-six pages of Latin and English text. 9. ‘English Botany,’ 36 vols. 8vo, 1790–1814, with 2,592 coloured plates by James Sowerby. 10. ‘Spicilegium Botanicum,’ two fasciculi, 1791–2, fol., with twenty-four coloured plates and twenty-two pages of Latin and English text. 11. ‘Linnæi Flora Lapponica,’ London, 1792, 8vo. 12. ‘Specimen of the Botany of New Holland,’ London, 1793, 4to, with sixteen coloured plates. 13. ‘Sketch of a Tour on the Continent,’ London, 3 vols. 8vo, 1793; 2nd edit. 1807. 14. ‘Natural History of the rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia, from Observations by J. Abbot,’ 2 vols. fol. 1797, which appeared simultaneously in both English and French. 15. ‘Tracts relating to Natural History,’ London, 1798, 8vo, including reprints of 1, 2, and 5. 16. ‘Flora Britannica,’ London, 3 vols. 8vo, 1800–4; with notes by Johann Jakob Roemer, and additional English localities by L. W. Dillwyn, Zurich, 1804–5. 17. ‘Compendium Floræ Britannicæ,’ 1800; 2nd edit. 1816; 3rd edit. 1818; 5th edit. 1828; ‘in usum Floræ Germanicæ,’ Erlangen, 1801. 18. ‘Exotic Botany,’ London, 2 vols. 8vo and 4to, 1804–1805, with 120 coloured plates by Sowerby. 19. ‘Flora Græca,’ vols. i.–vii. fol. 1806–28. 20. ‘Prodromus Floræ Græcæ,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1806, 1813. 21. ‘Introduction to Physiological and Systematic Botany,’ London, 1807, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1809; 3rd edit. 1814; 4th edit. 1819; 5th edit. 1825; 6th edit. 1827; 7th edit., edited by W. J. Hooker, 1833; another, edited by William Macgillivray, 1838; American edit., with notes by J. Bigelow, Boston, 1814, 8vo; translated into German by Joseph August Schultes, Vienna, 1819. 22. ‘Tour to Hafod,’ fol., 1810, with fifteen coloured views; only a hundred copies printed. 23. ‘Lachesis Lapponica,’ translated from Linnæus, London, 2 vols. 8vo, 1811. 24. ‘Review of the Modern State of Botany,’ chiefly taken from Linnæus's ‘Prælectiones’ as published by Giseke, from the second volume of the supplement to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ London, 1817, 4to, pp. 48, reprinted in Lady Smith's ‘Memoir,’ ii. 441–591. 25. ‘Considerations respecting Cambridge, more especially relating to the Botanical Professorship,’ 1818, 8vo. 26. ‘A Defence of the Church and Universities of England against such injudicious Advocates as Professor Monk and the Quarterly Review,’ 1819, 8vo. 27. ‘Grammar of Botany,’ 1821; 2nd edit. 1826; American edition, by H. Muhlenberg, New York, 1822; German edition, Weimar, 1822. 28. ‘Correspondence of Linnæus and other Naturalists,’ London, 1821, 2 vols. 8vo. 29. ‘English Flora,’ London, 4vols. 8vo, 1824–8. 30. ‘Compendium of the English Flora,’ London, 1829, 8vo; 2nd edit., edited by W. J. Hooker, 1836, 12mo. [Memoir and Correspondence, by Lady Smith, 2 vols. 1832; Nichols's Illustrations, vol. vi.; Georgian Era, iii. 230; Nicholson's Journal.]