Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1816-1896)

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SMITH, WILLIAM, LL.D. (1816–1896), actuary and translator of Fichte, was born in Liverpool of Scottish parents on 30 Dec. 1816. His father dying while he was an infant, he was brought up at Edinburgh in the house of his maternal grandfather, Robert Cumming, who, though a descendant of John Brown (1627?–1685), the martyr of the covenant, was himself a disciple of James Purves [q. v.] Apprenticed to a bookseller in his thirteenth year, after serving seven years he was for another seven years engaged as clerk in a newspaper office. In 1845 he entered the insurance business as head clerk to the British Guarantee Association. In 1847 he became manager of the English and Scottish Law Life Assurance Association, a post which he held with the highest distinction for forty-five years, retiring in 1892, when he became a director. He became a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries of Great Britain and Ireland in 1846, and of Scotland in 1856. In 1862 he served on the committee for collection of the mortality experiences of British life offices. From 1879 to 1881 he was chairman of the Association of Scottish Managers, and as such drafted the Married Women's Policies of Assurance (Scotland) Act, 1880.

Smith made his mark in letters and philosophy as the translator (1845–9) and biographer (1845) of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), with whose idealism he was in strong sympathy. He had no classical tastes or training, but was widely read in French and German, as well as in English literature. His familiarity with modern European thought was extended by foreign travel. In 1846 he was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, and was long its most active vice-president and chairman of its directors. The selection of its library and the arrangements for its winter lectures owed much to his insight and enterprise, and to his admirable combination of courage and strong sense. The honorary degree of LL.D., conferred upon him by Edinburgh University in 1872, was a well-earned tribute to one who, without the aid of an academic career, had done much to foster the true spirit of modern culture.

In politics a strong liberal, he took an active part in the second return of Macaulay for Edinburgh (1852), in the election of Adam Black [q. v.] as Macaulay's successor (1856), and in the successive elections of Mr. Gladstone for Midlothian. He was a J.P. for Midlothian. For some time he was an office-bearer, subsequently an attendant, at St. Mark's Chapel (unitarian). Among his closest friends were Robert Cox [q. v.] and William Ballantyne Hodgson [q. v.] His genial humour, generous kindness, and steadfast will made him a powerful personality in the circles in which he moved. He died at his residence, Lennox Lea, Currie, Midlothian, on 28 May 1896, and was buried at the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh. He married (1844) Martha (d. 16 May 1887), daughter of Robert Hardie, manager of the Edinburgh University printing press, and had nine children, of whom seven survived him. His translations of Fichte (forming part of ‘The Catholic Series’ published by John Chapman) comprise: ‘The Nature of the Scholar … with a Memoir,’ 1845, 8vo; ‘The Vocation of the Scholar,’ 1847, 8vo; ‘The Characteristics of the Present Age,’ 1847, 8vo; ‘The Vocation of Man,’ 1848, 8vo; ‘The Way towards the Blessed Life,’ 1849, 8vo. These were collected with additions, as ‘The Popular Works of Fichte … with a Memoir,’ 1849, 8vo, 2 vols. (1889, 8vo, 2 vols.).

[Scotsman, 29 May 1896, 30 May 1896 (letter by W. T. Gairdner, M.D.); Christian Life, 6 June 1896, p. 278; personal knowledge.]

A. G.