Smith, The Hon. John

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The Hon. John Smith

Foundation Dean of the Faculty of Medicine 1856-1883

Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics 1852-1881

Professor of Experimental Physics 1881-1885

Examiner in Medicine 1856-1885

Fellow of the Senate 1861-1885

Professor of Experimental Physics 1881-1885

CMG MA MD HonLLD (Aberdeen)


John Smith was born near Aberdeen in Scotland in 1821, the son of a blacksmith. He studied at Marischal College, one of the two constituent colleges of the University of Aberdeen, and gained his MA in 1843 and his MD in 1844. He voyaged to Australia in 1847 for health reasons, acting as a ship’s surgeon, before taking up a position as Lecturer in Chemistry and Agriculture at Marischal College. It was while in this position that he first became interested in water purity and water analysis.

In 1852 he was appointed foundation Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics at the University of Sydney and began his teaching in what is now the Sydney Grammar School. He was the first Professor of Chemistry in Australia, his appointment antedating that at Melbourne University by thirty years, but it is generally accepted that he was trained a few years too soon to gain from the explosion in chemical knowledge that occurred in the later 19th century. He took eighteen months’ leave in 1860, ostensibly to update his scientific knowledge. Following the appointment in 1866 of Alexander Morrison Thomson, he devoted himself to public affairs and began to drift away from Chemistry more and more, the process becoming almost complete when he secured the appointment of Archibald Liversidge in 1872. Thereafter he had the title of Professor of Experimental Physics, but there is little evidence that he taught Physics, at least as we would understand it.

Smith was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1856 and became a Fellow of Senate in 1861. There is no record in 1856 of Smith’s opposing or having objected to this move—indeed he was a member of the Senate subcommittee that drafted the relevant by-laws—but the subsequent behaviour of Charles Nicholson and his colleagues suggests that they must have been aware of Smith’s opposition to the establishment of a medical school. Smith’s opposition, as well as lack of finance, continued to be major obstacles to the establishment of a Medical School for the next twenty years.

A plausible case can be developed to represent Smith as somewhat of a puppet, at least with respect to University politics, in the hands of the Principal, the Reverend John Woolley. Thus, when Smith first gave evidence before the Select Committee of 1859 investigating the administration of the University, he was almost obstinately non-critical and stated quite emphatically that he had no wish to become a Fellow of Senate. Only a couple of days later however, when he reappeared before the committee after having consultations with Woolley, he had become transformed into a hostile critic of the Senate and did Nicholson and his colleagues considerable damage. It is ironic that he should have been able to use Nicholson’s one popularizing gesture, the creation of a Medical School, as a means of attacking the Senate, but if one considers that Woolley may have been pursuing single-mindedly the object of getting places for the Professors on the Senate, then Smith’s actions became comprehensible since they certainly did provide good grounds in support of Woolley’s case. Smith’s volte face before the committee does not suggest a man of great strength of character with deeply held views, but rather a weak man anxious to placate his senior colleague and prepared to say what he was told to. In Australian public life Smith had also made his mark. From 1853 he served on the Board of National Education and made significant contributions to the reforming Public Schools Act of 1866, promoted by Henry Parkes. In that year, Parkes appointed him to the newly created Council of Education, of which he was nine times elected President.

Smith clearly believed in the expansion of public education. In the 1850s he delivered public lectures on chemistry which were advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald as being ‘open to ladies as well as gentlemen,’ followed in later years by a series of lectures for women and girls entitled Electricity for Young Ladies. In 1877 Smith was one of only two fellows in the Senate to support the right for a woman to attend university classes.

As well as supporting public education, Smith extended his interest in philanthropic work becoming director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society 1864-72 and 1883-5, and chairman in the 1870s and 1880s. Smith also pursued his long-standing interest in water purity, and frequently acted as Government adviser on such matters as the siting of water reservoirs. He chaired a Royal Commission on the water supply of Sydney and its suburbs and laid plans for when the city developed to a population of 250,000. In June 1874 Smith was appointed to the NSW Legislative Council and often contributed to debates on health, medicine and education.

His performance in the Legislative Council during the debate on the Medical Bill of 1874, which was defeated, indicates an underlying antipathy to medical practitioners and, after that debate, the hostility was fully reciprocated. Thus, the NSW Medical Gazette in 1875 devoted a five-page editorial article to an attack on him, claiming that he ‘sneers at the system of lectures and book learning and makes observation, sense perception, and instinct, superior to mental discipline and the careful acquisition of knowledge’ and accusing him of being an apologist for quacks. One can but say that Smith stood condemned out of his own mouth but, it is fair to point out that he spoke the truth when he criticized the poor behaviour of some registered practitioners. In 1876 the University of Aberdeen conferred an honorary LLD on him for his work on water analysis, and he received a CMG in 1878 for his services to education.

It is not easy for the medical historian to view him objectively. There is little doubt that he made a significant contribution to public life in the colony and even, by his interest in water pollution, to public health and to medicine. He performed adequately as Professor of Chemistry but scarcely at all as a physicist. His main contribution to the University must be seen as fostering the development of the ‘Arts’ curriculum, principally the science subjects, and resisting the expansion of the University into the field of professional training. He was conservative to the point of short sightedness, even opposing the move of the University from Hyde Park to the Grose Farm.

Professor Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart, in an exuberant moment in his jubilee address, referred to him as a ‘zealous, but cautious, promoter of public education, and the public good’, but elsewhere in the same paper he exposed him as a member of the professional group that betrayed Nicholson in public before the hostile Parliamentary Select Committee of 1859.

George H Abbott, reminiscing in 1935 about his student days at Sydney University described him in kindly enough terms: ‘I was a youngster of sixteen years when he lectured to us of the first year, which was then common to all faculties. I can still imagine that I hear his voice— ‘Thir-r-d student from the end wark oot, the next student please wark oot’. ‘Mr Ogilvie, you yawned!’. ‘Excuse me sir, but I did not.’ ‘I’ll tak’ your word for it, but I doan’t believe it.’ Perhaps the Faculty was fortunate that Smith delayed the School’s opening for so long—as a consequence it grew in expansionist times in a unique relationship with a new teaching hospital. Had it opened earlier it would surely have enjoyed a less propitious beginning.

Another of Smith’s lasting memorials is a splendid collection of historic photographs of the University and Sydney surrounds taken between 1855 and 1880. Smith was an exceptionally talented amateur photographer, one of the first in this country, and his photographs have historical significance in the development of the visual arts in Australia. He died on October 12 1885 according to the record, ‘of phthisis’ and was laid to rest in Waverley Cemetery, his obituary appearing in The Sydney Mail. Having married Mary (Minnie) Macleod in England in 1872, he was survived by her and Nora his adopted daughter. His name is commemorated in the University by a prize for first-year Chemistry which he endowed in his will. A portrait of Smith was painted by Archibald Reid c1885.

A.D.B. Vol. 6, pp. 148–150. Sydney Morning Herald (1875). 14 May. Sydney Morning Herald (1885). 13 October. N.S.W. Med. Gaz. (1875). Vol. 5, pp. 60–65. Aust. Med. Gaz. (1902). pp. 491–503. Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly N.S.W. (1860). Vol. 4, pp. 111–115. Taylor, R. C. (1970). Changes in the Curriculum of the University of Sydney 1860–1890 with Special Reference to Medical Education. Unpublished Essay, University of Sydney Archives. Abbott, G. H. (1935). RPA Yearbook, pp. 9–17.


Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Smith, The Hon. John. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.


FURTHER CITATION INFORMATION COMING WITH FOOTNOTES