Fellows of Senate

Professor John Smith CMG

Professor John Smith CMG was one of the first 3 professors at the University of Sydney from 1852 to 1885, and was a Fellow of Senate from 1861 to 1885.


BA Camb
Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics 1852–1882
Professor of Experimental Physics 1882–1885
Fellow of Senate 1861–1885

His early years

John Smith was born on 12 December 1821 at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Roderick Smith, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Shier.

From 1839 he studied at the Marischal College, Aberdeen (MA 1843; MD 1844).

After a voyage as a surgeon to Australia for his health, in 1847 Smith became lecturer in chemistry and agriculture at Marischal where he conducted important water analyses.

His career

As foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics in the University of Sydney, Smith arrived on 8 September 1852 in the 'Australian' and set up his laboratory at the Sydney College, Hyde Park, the University's initial premises.

On 25 March 1853 he was appointed to the National Board of Education, contributed to the reforms embodied in (Sir) Henry Parkes's Public Schools Act of 1866, was appointed to the new Council of Education, and was president nine times before its demise in 1880.

Smith's chemistry classes offered little practical teaching but gave the current elementary theories of chemical structure and reaction; each other year he taught classes in experimental physics and illustrated his lectures with examples of his own pioneer researches in water analyses and photography.

In July 1874 Smith was appointed to the Legislative Council and spoke often on educational and scientific-medical matters. In 1876 he received an honorary LLD from the University of Aberdeen and in 1878 was appointed CMG.

Smith's commitment to chemistry decreased after the appointment of A M Thomson as assistant in 1866, and later of Liversidge to whom he relinquished the chair of chemistry in 1882, retaining responsibility for experimental physics until 1885. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1884-85 and of the Faculty of Medicine until 1883.

Survived by his wife and adopted daughter, he died of phthisis on 12 October 1885 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Waverley cemetery. In his will he provided for the annual Smith Prize in the University of Sydney for the best first-year undergraduate in experimental physics.

Professor John Smith in his laboratory in the late 1850s

Professor John Smith in his laboratory in the late 1850s, photo 809_060, University of Sydney Archives.

Professor Smith on the right and gargoyles in 1859.

Professor Smith on the right and gargoyles in various stages of completion in front of the Quadrangle's East Range in 1859, photo G3_224_990 taken by Professor Smith, University of Sydney Archives.

Professor Smith timing an exposure

Photo taken from Science Road of Professor Smith timing the exposure while leaning against a ladder near the Great Hall's northern doorway, photo 809_038 taken by Professor Smith, University of Sydney Archives.

Professor John Smith

Professor John Smith, photo G3_224_1906, University of Sydney Archives.


Professors and 3rd year students in 1881. Front row: Professor Gurney, Professor Liversidge, Canon Allwood (Professor and Vice-Chancellor), Professor Badham and Professor Smith, photo 1881_990, University of Sydney Archives.

His photography

Smith was an avid and talented photographer, one of the first in Australia, and his photographs have historical significance in the development of the visual arts in Australia and as a record of the construction of the East Range of the Quadrangle.

View some of his photos of the construction of the Quadrangle 1857-62 - on the Archives website.

View more of his photos - on the Faculty of Medicine's online museum website.

His membership of Senate

Smith was an ex officio member of Senate from 1861 to 1885.