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Significant Scots
William Smellie

SMELLIE, WILLIAM, an eminent naturalist, and useful miscellaneous writer, was born in Edinburgh, about the year 1740, being the son of Mr Alexander Smellie, a builder, who belonged to the stricter order of presbyterians, and was the constructor of the martyrs’ tomb in the Greyfriars’ church-yard. William Smellie received the rudiments of his education at the parish school in Duddingston, and, though destined for a handicraft profession, was afterwards for some time at the High School of Edinburgh. His father at first wished to apprentice him to a stay-maker, but the business of a printer was ultimately preferred, and he was indentured to Messrs Hamilton, Balfour, and Neil, then eminent professors of that art in the Scottish capital. While yet very young, he had the misfortune to lose his father; but the exemplary conduct of the young printer soon placed him above the necessity of depending upon others for his subsistence. Every leisure moment was devoted to study, or literary pursuits; and only a few years of his apprenticeship had elapsed, when he was appointed by his employers to the responsible office of corrector of the press, with a weekly allowance of ten shillings, instead of his stipulated wages of three shillings. Instead of wasting his earnings on frivolicy or dissipation, young Smellie took the opportunity of attending a regular course of the university classes. The result of this was soon evidenced, by his producing an edition of Terence, in duodecimo, wholly set up and corrected by himself; which Harwood, the philologist, declares to be "an immaculate edition;" and which gained to his masters an honorary prize, offered by the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, for the best edition of a Latin classic. Upon the expiry of his indentures, Mr Smellie, then only nineteen years of age, accepted employment from Messrs Murray and Cochrane, printers in Edinburgh, as corrector of their press, and conductor of the Scots Magazine, a work published by them, and which kept a conspicuous station in the literary world, from 1739, up to a recent period. For these duties, besides setting types and keeping accounts "in cases of hurry," Mr Smellie at first received the sum of sixteen shillings per week. Notwithstanding, however, his severe professional labours, he still prosecuted his classical studies with great ardour; and nothing, perhaps, can better illustrate the self-tasking nature of Mr Smellie’s mind, than the fact, that he instructed himself in the Hebrew language, solely that he might be thereby fitted for superintending the printing of a grammar of that tongue, then about to be published by professor Robertson. It appears that about this time he was strongly disposed to renounce his mechanical employment, and adopt one of the learned professions, having already almost fitted himself either for that of medicine or theology. But prudential motives, induced by the certainty of a fixed source of emolument, determined him to adhere to the business of a printer, which he did throughout life. It is here worthy of notice, that, during his engagement with Messrs Murray and Cochrane, a dispute having arisen between the masters and journeymen printers of Edinburgh, respecting the proper mode of calculating the value of manual labour by the latter; Mr Smellie devised a plan for regulating the prices of setting up types, on fixed principles, being in proportion to the number of letters, of differently sized types, in a certain space. This useful plan has since been almost universally adopted throughout the kingdom.

Mr Smellie continued in the employment of the above gentlemen for six years; that is to say, until the year 1765, during which time we find him steadily advancing himself in life, extending his acquaintance amongst the literati of the day, and improving himself by every means within his reach. One plan for the latter purpose which he adopted, was that of entering largely into an epistulary correspondence with his acquaintances, with the view of giving him freedom and facility in committing his thoughts to paper. He likewise co-operated with a number of young men of similar habits and pursuits to his own, in establishing a weekly club, which they termed the NEWTONIAN SOCIETY, and which included the names of president Blair, Dr Hunter, Dr Blacklock, Dr Buchan, (author of the Domestic Medicine,) Dr Adam, and many others who afterwards became celebrated in their respective walks in life. After the discontinuance of this society, another was instituted in 1778, called the Newtonian Club, of which Mr Smellie was unanimously chosen secretary. This latter institution comprised the names of Dr Duncan, Dr Gregory, Dugald Stewart, professor Russell, Dr Wardrope,—in short the whole senatus of the university, with many other illustrious individuals. Mr Smellie had a decided preference to the study of natural history, especially of botany, and about the year 1760, collected an extensive Hortus Siccus from the fields around Edinburgh, which he afterwards presented to Dr Hope, professor of botany in the university. He likewise in the same year, gained the honorary gold medal given by the professor for the best botanical dissertation; and soon afterwards wrote various other discourses on vegetation, generation, &c., all of which were subsequently published in a large work solely written by himself, entitled the "Philosophy of Natural History." He was besides no mean chemist, at a time when chemistry had scarcely been reduced to a science, and was generally held as alike visionary and vain. Upon the publication of the Essays of the celebrated David Hume, printed by Mr Smellie, an extended correspondence took place between them, in which the latter contested with great logical force and acumen many of the heterodox doctrines advanced by the former; particularly that respecting the credibility of miracles. Mr Smellie afterwards drew up, in a masterly manner, an abstract of the arguments for and against that principle of our religious faith, for the Encyc1opaedia Britannica, and which was published in the first edition of that work.

Mr Smellie lived in terms of great intimacy with Dr William Buchan, author of the well-known "Domestic Medicine." That work passed through the press in Messrs Murray and Cochrane’s printing office, and entirely under Mr Smellie’s superintendence, Dr Buchan himself then residing in England. It is well ascertained that Mr Smellie contributed materially, both by his medical and philological knowledge, to the value and celebrity of the publication; and from the fact, indeed, of his having re-written the whole of it for the printers, he was very generally considered at the time, in Edinburgh, to be the sole author of it. The work has now naturally become almost obsolete from the rapid progress in the medical and other sciences therewith connected, since its composition; but the fact of its having passed through between twenty and thirty editions, ere superseded, fully establishes the claim of the author, or rather authors, to a reputation of no mean note, it appears, by their correspondence, that Dr Buchan was particularly anxious that Mr Smellie should qualify himself as M.D., and share his fortunes in England, in the capacity of assistant; but, with his constitutional prudence, the latter declined the invitation. The correspondence, however, induced him to give a marked attention to the practice and theory of medicine, as well as to stimulate him in his favourite study of natural history; thus qualifying himself for the excellent translation of Buffon, which he subsequently executed.

In 1763, being then only twenty-three years of age, Mr Smellie married a Miss Robertson, who was very respectably connected. By this marriage he had thirteen children, many of whom he lost by death. In 1765, upon the conclusion of his engagement with Messrs Murray and Cochrane, he commenced business as a master-printer, in conjunction with a Mr Auld, Mr Smellie’s pecuniary proportion of the copartnery being advanced for him by Dr Hope and Dr Fergusson, professors in the university. In 1767, a new copartnery was formed by the introduction of Mr Balfour, bookseller, who brought along with him the property of a newspaper called the Weekly Journal, which had for a considerable time previously been established. The management of the latter was solely intrusted to Mr Smellie; but as it happened to be a losing concern, he shortly afterwards insisted on its discontinuance This led to disputes, which finally terminated in a dissolution of the copartnery in 1771; when a new contract was entered into between Mr Balfour and Mr Smellie only. About the same time, he appears to have been on terms with the eminent Mr William Strahan, to undertake the management of the vast printing concern carried on by him in London; but from some cause not clearly explained the treaty was broken off. It is worthy of mention, as showing the respect in which Mr Smellie was at this time held, that upon his entering on this new copartnery, lord Kames became security for a bank credit in favour of the younger printer, to the amount of 300. His lordship appears to have had a particular regard for Mr Smellie, and at his suggestion the latter commenced the composition of a series of lectures on the Philosophy of Natural History. About the same time the professorship of natural history in the Edinburgh university fell vacant, and great exertions were made to procure Mr Smellie’s appointment to it; but the political interest of his rival, Dr Walker, prevailed, and was even strong enough to prevent him from delivering his lectures publicly, although the Antiquarian Society, of whose Museum he was keeper, offered him the use of their hall for that purpose.

Mr Smellie’s acquaintance with lord Kames originated in his venturing to send, anonymously however, some animadversions on his lordship’s "Elements of Criticism," whilst that work was going through the press of Messrs Murray and Cochrane in 1764. Lord Kames replied by thanking the young critic, and requesting him to reveal himself. The result was a strict and intimate friendship during their lives; lord Kames uniformly submitting all his subsequent works to the critical judgment of Mr Smellie, who, after the death of lord Kames, wrote the life of his illustrious friend for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in the third edition of which it appeared in 1800.

Amongst Mr Smellie’s many literary undertakings, one of the earliest was the compilement and entire conducting of the first edition of the work just named, which began to appear in numbers at Edinburgh in 1771, and was completed in three volumes in quarto. The plan, and all the principal articles were devised and written or compiled by him, and he prepared and superintended the whole of that work, for which he only received the sum of 200, from its proprietors, Mr Andrew Bell, engraver, and Mr Colin Macfarquhar, printer. Had Mr Smellie adhered to this literary project, there is little doubt that he would thereby ultimately have realized an ample fortune, as both the proprietors died in great affluence, arising solely from the labours of Mr Smellie in the original fabrication of the work. Unfortunately, however, when applied to by the proprietors to undertake the second edition, he fastidiously refused to meddle with it on account of their desiring to introduce a plan of biography into it, which Mr Smellie imagined would detract from its dignity as a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences.

It will, we should think, be interesting to our readers to learn something of the early history of a work which has latterly swelled out into such bulk and importance. Of the original edition—the entire work, as we have said, of Mr Smellie—it is not exactly known how many copies were thrown off. The second edition, which consisted of 1500 copies, extended to ten volumes quarto. A third edition, in eighteen volumes, was commenced in 1786, and extended to 10,000 copies. By this edition the proprietors are said to have netted 42,000 of clear profit, besides being paid for their respective work as tradesmen—the one as printer, and the other as engraver. The fourth edition extended to twenty quarto volumes, and 3,500 copies. In the fifth and sixth editions, only part of the work was printed anew; and to these a supplement in six volumes was added by Mr Archibald Constable, after the property of the work had fallen into his hands. An eighth edition, under the editorship of professor Traill, is now in the course of publication.

In the year 1773, Mr Smellie, in conjunction with Dr Gilbert Stuart, commenced a new monthly publication, The Edinburgh Magazine and Review, which was conducted for some years with great spirit and talent, but was dropped in 1776, after the production of 47 numbers, forming five octavo volumes. Its downfall was attributed to a continued series of harsh and wanton attacks from the pen of Dr Stuart, on the writings of lord Monboddo, which disgusted the public mind. Edinburgh did not at that time afford such ample scope for literary stricture as at the present day. Lord Monboddo, nevertheless, continued to be warmly attached to Mr Smellie, and they lived on terms of the strictest intimacy till his lordship’s death.

In the year 1780, on the suggestion of the late earl of Buchan, a society for collecting and investigating the antiquities of Scotland, was instituted at Edinburgh. Of this society, Mr Smellie was personally invited by his lordship, to become a member; which he did, and was appointed printer of their journals and transactions. Next year, he was elected keeper of their museum of natural history; and in 1793, he was elected secretary, which office he held till his death.

It is not, we believe, generally known, that with Mr Smellie originated that admirable scheme of a statistical account of all the parishes of Scotland, which was afterwards brought to maturity by Sir John Sinclair. At the desire of the Antiquarian Society, Mr Smellie, in 1781, drew up a regular plan of the undertaking, which was printed and circulated; but the individuals to whom they were addressed, do not seem to have understood the important nature of the application, and only a very few complied with the directions given in it.

In 1780, Mr Smellie commenced the publication of his "Translation of Buffon’s Natural History;" a work which has ever stood deservedly high in the opinion of naturalists, being illustrated with numerous notes and illustrations of the French author, besides a considerable number of new observations. It is worthy of notice, that Mr Smellie’s knowledge of the French tongue, which is acknowledged to have been profound, was entirely acquired by himself, without the aid of a master; and it is a curious fact, that, of a language he so thoroughly understood, he could scarcely pronounce one word. This fact gave unbounded surprise to a friend of Buffon, who came to Edinburgh on a visit, and waited on Mr Smellie. The stranger noted it down as one of the greatest wonders of his travels, intending, he said, to astonish the French naturalist, by relating it to him. It is perhaps the best of all tests, as regards the merits of Mr Smellie’s translation, that Buffon himself was highly pleased with it, and even requested him to translate some of his other works; but this, from prudential motives, Mr Smellie declined.

In the year 1780, the partnership between Mr Smellie and Mr Balfour was dissolved, when the former entered into partnership with Mr William Creech, bookseller. This connexion continued to the end of 1789, when Mr Smellie commenced, and ever afterwards carried on business, entirely on his own account.

In 1790, Mr Smellie published the first volume of his "Philosophy of Natural History," the origin of which has been already noticed. The copyright was at the same time purchased by Mr Elliot, bookseller, Edinburgh for one thousand guineas. The second and concluding volume was not published, until four years after his death. Besides this and the other larger works, which we have before adverted to, as the production of Mr Smellie, we have seen a list of upwards of forty miscellaneous essays, upon almost all subjects--from politics to poetry, from optics to divinity—which he composed at different times and under various circumstances, and from his indefatigable industry and wonderful facility of writing, it is supposed that these are scarcely a moiety of his literary effusions.

Mr Smellie’s acquaintance with Robert Burns, commenced in the year 1787, upon the occasion of the poet’s coming to Edinburgh to publish his poems, which were printed by Mr Smellie. From their similarly social dispositions, and mutual relish of each other’s wit, an immediate and permanent intimacy took place betwixt them. After Burns’s departure from Edinburgh, they corresponded frequently; but the greater part of the communications were afterwards destroyed by Mr Smellie, equally, perhaps, on the bard’s account and his own. Of the high opinion which the latter entertained, however, of his friend--and it is well known how fastidious was his taste on the score of talent, honesty, and real friendship amongst his fellow creatures—we have sufficient evidence in the poetical sketch, published in the works of Burns, commencing—

— "To Crochallan came
The old cock’d hat, the brown surtout, the same," &c.

Mr Smellie expired, after a long illness, on the 24th June, 1795, in his fifty-fifth year; and we regret to add his name to the long list of men of genius, who have terminated a career of labour, anxiety, and usefulness, amid the pressure of pecuniary diffculties. Some years after his death, a small volume was published, under the care of his son, containing memoirs of three distinguished men, with whom he had been acquainted; lord Kames, Dr John Gregory, and Mr David Hume: it formed part of a more extended design, which Mr Smellie had sketched out, but found not time to execute. A memoir of Mr Smellie himself was published by Mr Robert Keir, in two volumes octavo; a work, perhaps, disproportioned to the subject, but containing many curious anecdotes.

A treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery
By William Smellie in 3 volumes
Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3

William Smellie and the Maternal Mortality Problem
By Miles Phillips (pdf)

Memoirs of the life, writings, & correspondence of William Smellie
By Robert Kerr in two volumes
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Dr. William Smellie and his Contemporaries
A contribution to the History of Midwifery in the eighteenth century by John Glaister, M.D. (1894) (pdf)

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