Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Robert Angus

SMITH, ROBERT ANGUS (1817–1884), chemist, born in Glasgow on 15 Feb. 1817, was twelfth child and seventh son of John Smith of Loudoun, Ayrshire, and his wife Janet, daughter of James Thomson, a millowner at Strathaven (see W. Anderson Smith's ‘Shepherd’ Smith, p. 13).

An elder brother, John (1800–1871), master at Perth Academy, wrote a paper on the ‘Origin of Colour and Theory of Light’ (Memoirs of Manchester Lit. and Phil. Soc. [3], i. 1, 1859), which contains original and still unexplained experiments on the production of colour phenomena by rotating discs marked with black and white patterns. These have been recently reinvestigated without reference to Smith's work by C. E. Benham and others (‘An Artificial Spectrum Top,’ Nature, vol. 1. [1894–5] passim). Another brother, James Elimalet Smith, is separately noticed, and a third brother, Micaiah Smith (1807–1867), was a minister of the Scottish kirk, and an orientalist.

At nine Angus went to the Glasgow grammar school, and at thirteen to the Glasgow University, where he received a classical education, but, with his brother John, read Priestley's and other scientific works. On leaving the university he became tutor to several families in succession, first in the highlands and then in England. He spent two years with the Hon. and Rev. E. Bridgeman, with whom he went to Germany. He there heard of the great chemist Justus Liebig (1802–1875), who had created the first German school of chemistry at Giessen; and worked under him at that town during 1839–41, proceeding Ph.D. in 1841. He was a fellow-worker there with A. W. Hofmann (1818–1892), Lyon (now Lord) Playfair, Dr. Edward Schunck, F.R.S., and John Stenhouse [q. v.] During his stay he gave much time to philosophy as well as chemistry. On his return to England at the end of 1841 he published a translation of Liebig's work ‘On the Azotised Nutritive Principles of Plants.’ An early inclination towards a theological career revived, but was abandoned; and in 1842 he became assistant to Dr. Playfair, who was at the time professor of chemistry at the Manchester Royal Institution. Dr. Playfair's interest in the work of the health of towns commission, of which the sanitary reformer, Edwin (afterwards Sir Edwin) Chadwick (1801–1890), was the moving spirit, led Smith to pay attention to sanitary chemistry, and to this subject he devoted the greater part of his life. He decided to settle as a consulting chemist in Manchester, and on 29 April 1845 he was elected member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, of which he was president from April 1864 till April 1866. In 1847 he published his first paper on air (Memoirs of the Chemical Society, iii. 311), in which he made the important suggestion that the organic matter given out in respiration may be more injurious than the carbonic acid. He collected the moisture condensed on the window-pane of a crowded room, and examined the residue left after evaporation. In the same year he reported to the metropolitan sanitary commission on this subject; and also examined water derived from peaty soil. In 1848 (Brit. Assoc. Report, p. 16) he pointed out that the organic matter introduced into natural waters is got rid of in nature, especially in porous soils, by means of oxidation, nitrogenous matter being partially converted into nitrates. This theory he supported by numerous subsequent experiments. In 1849 he examined various problems connected with sewage, and made important suggestions, which are still under discussion, with regard to its canalisation and treatment.

In 1851 Smith began his most extensive research. The fact that the ratio between the amounts of oxygen and nitrogen present in the air varies exceedingly little under the most varied conditions of time and place had led to the impression that chemical analysis was unable to discover the impurities of town air which were made evident by their effect on human health, and even in certain cases by smell. Smith set himself systematically to combat this notion, and began by making a series of determinations of the sulphur compounds introduced into the air by the combustion of coal (Brit. Assoc. Report, 1851, pt. ii. p. 52). He followed this work up later by numerous determinations of other impurities—e.g. ammonia and carbonic acid. In 1856 Smith published a memoir of John Dalton (1766–1844) [q. v.], which embraced a history of the atomic theory from early times. The book displays erudition, common-sense, and impartiality of judgment wherever the issues were simple; but Smith had not sufficient clearness of mind or of style (in spite of occasional happiness of expression) to make a first-rate historian, and he failed to explain the genesis of Dalton's ideas (see Roscoe and Harden's New View of the Atomic Theory). In 1857 he was elected F.R.S. In 1859 he lectured on the organic impurities of the air before the Royal Institution, and described an ingenious method for a comparison of the relative amounts in different places. In 1864 Smith contributed to the report of the royal mines commission an elaborate examination of the air of mines and a comparison with that from various districts in large towns, and a physiological investigation of the effect of carbonic acid. In the same year Smith was elected chief inspector, under the Alkali Act of 28 July 1863, which provided for the inspection of alkali-works and other classes of factories (extended by the act of 1872), and for the infliction of fines when excessive amounts of acid vapours, likely to damage health and vegetation, were emitted. Smith performed his duties with tact and skill, insuring the co-operation of the previously hostile manufacturers in the working of the act, which he showed to be to their financial benefit. His twenty annual reports (continued till his death) contain a large amount of information on the condensation of hydrochloric acid and kindred subjects.

In April 1865 Smith proposed an ingenious ‘minimetric’ method of estimating carbonic acid in the air. In 1869 he published a book on ‘Disinfectants and Disinfection,’ containing a summary of other work, together with experiments of his own performed for the cattle plague commission. In it he recognised the fact that Pasteur's work on germs would revolutionise the subject, but it was only later that he became practically acquainted with Pasteur's methods. Smith's work led to the manufacture on a large scale by his friend Mr. Alexander McDougall of a useful disinfectant powder, consisting of a mixture of calcium sulphite and calcium phenate. In 1872 Smith published his ‘Air and Rain, the beginnings of a Chemical Climatology,’ in which he collected a large amount of experimental material from his previous papers. Less attention has been paid to this work than it deserves, partly because of its defects in composition (of which Smith was conscious), partly because Pasteur's work has diverted attention from the inorganic impurities of air. In the same year he published a study on peat-formation (Memoirs of Manchester Lit. and Phil. Soc. [5] iii. 281).

After going in the autumn of 1872 to Iceland in the yacht of his friend, the chemist, James Young (1811–1883) [q. v.], he wrote an essay ‘On some Ruins at Ellida Vatu and Kjarlanes,’ and a book, ‘To Iceland in a Yacht’ (privately printed in May 1873). In the same year he paid a visit, also with Young, to the island of St. Kilda, which he described in ‘Good Words’ for 1875, and in a pamphlet, ‘A Visit to St. Kilda’ (privately printed in 1879). In 1876 he edited ‘The Chemical and Physical Researches of Thomas Graham [q. v.]’, with a useful analysis of the separate memoirs, and an introduction on Graham's place as a chemist. The book was privately printed at the expense of Young for distribution among chemists. In 1884 the introduction was republished, together with many of Graham's letters and explanatory notes by Smith, under the title ‘An Account of the Life and Works of T. Graham.’ In 1879 Smith, who was passionately devoted to archæology, and especially to Scottish archæology, published anonymously a book on ‘Loch Etive,’ where he had spent many vacations, and on the legend of the ‘Sons of Uisnach;’ a second edition appeared with his name, posthumously, in 1885. The work, which is written in dialogue form, is valuable for its description of the vitrified fort of Dun MacUisneachan, and its recognition, in anticipation of William Forbes Skene [q. v.] in his ‘Celtic Scotland,’ of the extremely early and close connection between the populations of western Scotland and north-east Ireland (Professor Boyd Dawkins).

In 1880 Smith proposed to measure the ‘actinism of the sun's rays’ by their effect on a dilute acid solution of potassium iodide, from which they liberate an amount of iodine that is approximately proportional to the intensity of the light and length of exposure. This method, originally invented by Dr. Albert R. Leeds, though independently discovered by Smith, is of considerable practical value, and was employed by the Manchester air analysis committee in 1891–2 (Proceedings of the Manchester Field Naturalists' Society, 1892, p. 87). In 1883, at the request of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, Smith published, under the title ‘A Centenary of Science in Manchester,’ an interesting sketch of the history of the society (not altogether accurate in detail), with notices of many of its members. Smith and Mr. Robert Rawlinson, C.B., had been appointed the first inspectors under the Rivers Pollution Act of 1876; Smith wrote two official reports in this capacity, in 1882 and in 1884 (published posthumously). In the latter report he showed incidentally that under certain conditions the fermentation of sugar by the microbes found in water produces hydrogen, of which the amount evolved varies, cæteris paribus, with the water; and he made one of the first applications of Dr. Robert Koch's ‘gelatine’ method for determining the number of microbes in water. He also invented a process for lining iron waterpipes with an impermeable varnish which is widely used (Rivers Pollution Commission, 6th Rep. (1874), p. 221). He was made an honorary LL.D. of Glasgow in 1881, and of Edinburgh in 1882. In spite of declining health during the last few years of his life, Smith retained almost to the last his active habits of work. He died on 12 May 1884 at Colwyn Bay, North Wales, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Kersal, Manchester. He was unmarried; his niece, Miss Jessie Knox-Smith, had for some years previous to his death lived with him and helped him with his literary work.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that, ‘as the chemist of sanitary science, Smith worked alone’ (Thorpe); but the work of which he was the pioneer in this country is now being largely developed in many directions. He was of so unruffled a temper that he was called by his friends ‘Agnus,’ and was of an exceptionally kindly, winning, and generous disposition.

A bronze bust of Smith was sculptured in 1886 by T. Nelson Maclean, and presented to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society by his friend Dr. Schunck; and another bust by Brodie belonged to another friend, James Young. A bust of him is also in the library of the Owens College. His countenance was of the pure Gaelic type.

The ‘Royal Society's Catalogue’ gives a list of forty-eight papers by Smith; in addition to these and the books mentioned above, he published anonymously various articles in Ure's ‘Dictionary’ and the ‘Chemical News,’ and many articles on antiquarian subjects. His library, which was rich in works on chemistry and on Celtic literature, was bought by the ‘Angus Smith Memorial Committee’ and presented to the Owens College, Manchester, after his death.

[Besides the sources quoted, Smith's own works; Obituaries in Manchester Lit. and Phil. Soc. Proceedings, xxiv. 97, and Memoirs [3] x. 90, by Dr. Edward Schunck, F.R.S.; Nature, xxx. 104, by T. E. Thorpe; Manchester Guardian; Manchester Courier and Manchester Examiner for 13 May 1884; Chemical Soc. Journal, xlvii. 335; Chemical News, xl. 222, 1. 200; Ber. der deutschen Chem. Gesellschaft, by A. W. Hofmann, xvii. 1211; W. Anderson Smith's ‘Shepherd’ Smith, passim; Thompson's Owens College, pp. 232–3; Biograph and Review, v. 142; G. Seton's St. Kilda, p. 334; Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-general's Office, U.S.A. xiii. 217; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Roscoe and Harden's New View of Dalton's Atomic Theory; Dr. J. C. Thresh's Water … Supplies, pp. 20, 207; Report on the Progress … of Manufacturing Chemistry … in South Lancashire, by E. Schunck, R. Angus Smith, and H. E. Roscoe, Brit. Assoc. Report, 1861, p. 108; private information from Professor Boyd Dawkins, A. E. Fletcher, esq. (late chief inspector under the Alkali Act), R. F. Gwyther, esq., Professor Strachan, and Dr. Edward Schunck, Frank Scudder, esq. (for many years Smith's assistant).]

P. J. H.