Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/December 1874/Sketch of Dr. J. Lawrence Smith
WE give, this month, an excellent portrait of one of the most active and accomplished of our American scientists, one who has not only extended the boundaries of knowledge by his researches in the various fields of investigation to which he has devoted himself, but who has been a missionary of science to one of the old Oriental countries, and labored successfully to diffuse its benign influences among a semi-barbarous people.
J. Lawrence Smith was born December 16, 1818, near Charleston, South Carolina. His father, Benjamin Smith, was a Virginian, who had removed to South Carolina. The subject of this brief memoir received a classical education in the Charleston College, after which he was sent to the University of Virginia. At this institution he enjoyed facilities for the indulgence of his taste in the acquisition of knowledge in that department for which he had in early life shown a decided predilection—pure mathematics. In the later part of his academic career, he devoted himself to the higher branches of physics, mixed mathematics, and chemistry, pursuing the latter somewhat in the form of a recreation.
In determining a practical pursuit in life, young Smith selected civil-engineering as a profession, and, after devoting two years to the study of its various branches, in connection with geology and mining engineering, he was employed as one of the assistant engineers on the railroad projected at that time between Charleston and Cincinnati. This pursuit not proving congenial with his scientific tastes, he turned to the study of medicine, the college of the city of Charleston at that time possessing a corps of eminent medical teachers. After studying medicine three years, Dr. Smith was graduated by the Medical College of South Carolina, after which he went to Europe, where he devoted three more years to the study of medicine. But during all this time he continued his devotion to those departments which first commanded his scientific affections. He studied physiology under Flourens and Longet; chemistry under Orfila, Dumas, and Liebig; physics under Pouillet, Desprez, and Becquerel; mineralogy and geology under Elie de Beaumont and Dufrenoy.
Dr. Smith returned to America in 1844, having already begun to earn a reputation in original scientific researches, principally in connection with the fatty bodies. His paper on Spermaceti, in 1 842, at once stamped his character as an experimental inquirer.
On his return to Charleston, Dr. Smith commenced the practice of medicine, and there delivered a course of lectures on toxicology. But the State of South Carolina, needing his services as assayer of the bullion that came into commerce from the gold-fields of Georgia, North and South Carolina, appointed him to that duty. At the same time he gave a great deal of attention to agricultural chemistry, for which he had acquired a great fondness in Liebig's laboratory, and to this were added researches in geology and mineralogy. Among the attractive features of the agricultural chemistry of his native State that early drew the attention of Dr. Smith, were the unrivaled marls on which the city of Charleston stands. These beds of fertilizers are from 110 to 310 feet deep, and are in what geologists call the Tertiary formation. They extend back more than 100 miles from Charleston. Dr. Smith was one of the first to ascertain the scientific character of this immense agricultural wealth. His paper on this subject, with the correspondence of Prof. Bailey, the great microscopist of the Military Academy of West Point, is one of much interest. He also pointed out the large amount of phosphate of lime in these marls, from which there are now obtained immense quantities of phosphatic nodules.
During these scientific labors, Prof. Smith made a valuable and thorough investigation into the meteorological conditions, character of soils, and culture, affecting the growth of cotton. The report on this subject was so valuable, that in 1846 President Buchanan appointed Prof. Smith, in response to a request of the Sultan of Turkey, to teach the Turkish agriculturists the proper method for successful management of cotton-culture in Asia Minor. On arriving in Turkey Prof. Smith was chagrined to find that an associate in the commission had induced the Turkish Government to undertake the culture of cotton near Constantinople. Prof. Smith was unwilling to associate his name with an enterprise which he felt satisfied would be a failure, and the event fully justified his judgment. Prof. Smith was on the eve of returning to America, when the Turkish Government tendered him an independent appointment, that of mining engineer, with most liberal provisions. This position he filled during four years, and he performed his duties with such signal success, that the Turkish Government heaped upon him the decorations of the empire, and very costly presents. The results of Prof. Smith's labors are a permanent advantage to the empire, and it has received ever since 1846, and continues to receive, large revenues from his discoveries of emery, chrome, ores, and coals, within the domain of Turkey. His papers on these subjects, read before learned societies, and published in the principal scientific journals of Europe and America, gave him a high position among scientific men. His labors in Asia Minor on the subject of emery, which he was the first to discover there, led to its discovery in America; and in Massachusetts and North Carolina a large industrial product of emery is now carried on. In the scientific journals of this country, the papers on emery and corundum recognize the successful researches of Prof. Smith as having done almost every thing for these commercial enterprises. These discoveries of emery in Asia Minor destroyed the rapacious monopoly of the article at Naxos, in the Grecian Archipelago, increased the amount of emery used live or six fold, with a corresponding reduction in price. In many of the arts of life the free use of emery or corundum has become a necessity, but this free use of these articles would have been greatly retarded without a very material reduction in price.
While in the employment of the Sultan of Turkey, Prof. Smith investigated a great variety of Turkish resources, besides those directly within the purview of his appointment as mining engineer. His paper on the "Thermal Waters of Asia Minor" is one of extreme interest and great scientific value.
In 1851 Prof. Smith invented the inverted microscope, an important improvement; for, while it may do the work of any other microscope, there are very interesting fields of research which can be cultivated by no other instrument. Dr. Carpenter, in his work on "Physiology," bears strong testimony to its value.
After Prof. Smith's return from Turkey, his Alma Mater, the University of Virginia, elected him Professor of Chemistry, and, while discharging the duties of that chair, he, in connection with his able assistant, George J. Brush, at present one of the chief professors in the Sheffield School of Science, performed a much-needed work in revising the "Chemistry of American Minerals." A full account of these labors was given in the American Journal of Science, and subsequently in a valuable and interesting work containing the scientific researches of Prof. Smith, recently published by J. P. Morton & Co., in the city of Louisville.
After marrying, in Louisville, the daughter of the Hon. James Guthrie, Prof. Smith adopted that city as his home. He was elected, soon after settling in Louisville, to the chair of Chemistry in the Medical Department of the University of Louisville, a position which he held for a number of years. After resigning that chair, he took scientific charge of the gas-works of Louisville. He has a private laboratory where he spends several hours each day, and continues his devotion to original research.
Prof. Smith was one of the commissioners to the Paris Exposition of 1867, and made an able report on "The Progress and Condition of Several Departments of Industrial Chemistry." It is very nearly exhaustive of the important subjects to which it is devoted. Prof. Smith was again appointed commissioner to Vienna in 1873, and discharged his duties with his usual ability.
Prof. Smith's important original researches are no less than fifty in number, and his scientific reports are numerous, showing great activity and perseverance in cultivating the field he has chosen. Among the honors he has received is the highest that American science can confer, the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to which he was elected in 1872.