Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smee, Alfred
SMEE, ALFRED (1818–1877), surgeon, second son of William Smee, accountant-general to the Bank of England, was born in Camberwell on 18 June 1818. He entered St. Paul's School on 7 Nov. 1829 (St. Paul's School Reg. p. 280), and in October 1834 he became a medical student at King's College, London, where he carried off the silver medal and prize for chemistry in 1836, and the silver medals for anatomy and physiology in 1837. He then left King's College, and entered St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He was a dresser to (Sir) William Lawrence [q. v.], and obtained a prize in surgery. He lived the greater part of his student life in the official residence of his father within the Bank of England, and it was here that he carried out his work upon chemistry and electro-metallurgy which afterwards rendered his name famous. He received his diploma of member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 24 April 1840, and he began to practise as a consulting surgeon in Finsbury Circus, devoting his attention more especially to diseases of the eye. Much of his time at this period was occupied in the solution of chemical problems and in the study of electrical science. Smee's battery (zinc and silver in sulphuric acid) was the outcome of his labours. It was largely employed for trade purposes, and for it he was awarded the gold Isis medal at the Society of Arts. His volume on electro-metallurgy was published on 1 Dec. 1840. He was appointed surgeon to the Bank of England in January 1841, a post which had been especially created for him by the directors, upon the recommendation of Sir Astley Cooper, who thought that the bank could turn his scientific genius to good account. He invented a durable writing-ink in 1842, and in 1854, with Mr. Hensman, the engineer, and Mr. Coe, the superintendent of printing at the bank, perfected the present system of printing the cheques and notes. Certain modifications were introduced into the manufacture of the notes to prevent or render it impossible any longer to split them. His paper on ‘New Bank of England Note and the Substitution of Surface Printing from Electrotypes for Copperplate Printing’ was read before the Society of Arts in 1854. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 10 June 1841, and in February 1842 he became surgeon to the Royal General Dispensary in Aldersgate Street. He also lectured on surgery at the Aldersgate Street school of medicine, and he acted as surgeon to the Central London Ophthalmic Institution. He was much occupied with a work, ‘Elements of Electro-Biology,’ which appeared in 1849. It was a pioneer excursion into the territory of electrical physiology, and appeared in a more popular form in 1850 as ‘Instinct and Reason.’ Smee took a great interest in the welfare of the London Institution, and in 1854 he was instrumental in establishing there that system of educational lectures which became a permanent feature. He was one of the founders of the Gresham Life Assurance Society and of the Accident Insurance Company. In later life he devoted himself to horticulture at his experimental garden at Wallington in Surrey, publishing his results in a magnificent work, ‘My Garden; its Plan and Culture’ (1872), which is written somewhat upon the lines of White's ‘Selborne.’ A second edition appeared in the same year, with thirteen hundred engravings. Smee contested Rochester, in the conservative interest, in 1865, in 1868, and again in 1874, but always without success.
He died at 7 Finsbury Circus, of diabetes, on 11 Jan. 1877, and was buried at St. Mary's Church, Beddington, in Surrey. He married Miss Hutchison on 2 June 1840, and by her had issue a son, Alfred Hutchison Smee, F.C.S., and two daughters. Had Smee lived a few years later he would have made himself a great reputation as an electrical engineer. His chief achievement dealt with electro-metallurgy, including the art of electrotyping. His medical work was subordinated to other and, as it proved, to more important issues, yet even here his acumen enabled him to carry out improvements in the details of everyday practice. He invented, while he was yet a student, that method of making splints out of plastic materials, known as ‘gum and chalk,’ which was only superseded by the use of plaster of Paris, and he was quick to turn to account in the treatment of fractures the physical properties of guttapercha. He also employed electrical means to detect the presence of needles impacted in different parts of the human body.
Smee's chief works, apart from those mentioned, were:
- ‘Elements of Electro-Metallurgy,’ London, 1840; an important work dealing with the laws regulating the reduction of metals in different states, as well as a description of the processes for platinating and palladiating, so that reliefs and intaglios in gold can be readily obtained. Smee was also the first to discover the means by which perfect reverses in plaster could be made by rendering the plaster non-absorbent; 2nd edit. 1843; 3rd edit. 1851. It was translated into Welsh, 12mo, Denbigh, 1852.
- ‘On the Detection of Needles … impacted in the Human Body,’ London, 8vo, 1845.
- ‘Vision in Health and Disease,’ &c., London, 8vo, 1847; 2nd edit. 1854.
- ‘A Sheet of Instructions as to the proper Treatment of “Accidents and Emergencies,”’ 12mo, 1850; 10th edit. undated; translated into French, Paris, 12mo, 1872, and into German, Berlin, 8vo, undated.
[Memoir of the late Alfred Smee, F.R.S., by his daughter (Mrs. Odling), 8vo, London, 1878; obituary notice in the Medical Times and Gazette, 1877, i. 79; additional information kindly supplied to the writer by Alfred Hutchison Smee, esq.]