Smellie, William (1740-1795) (DNB00)

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SMELLIE, WILLIAM (1740–1795), Scottish printer, naturalist, and antiquary, the second son of Alexander Smellie, an architect, was born in the Pleasance, Edinburgh, in 1740. He was educated first at a school in the village of Duddingstone, and afterwards at a grammar school in Edinburgh till 1752, when he was apprenticed (1 Oct.) to Messrs. Hamilton, Balfour, & Neil, printers in Edinburgh, for the term of six years and a half. So well did he acquit himself that two years before the expiration of his time he was appointed corrector of the press, with permission to attend classes in the university. In 1757 he won for his employers a silver medal offered by the Edinburgh Philosophical Society for the most accurate edition of a Latin classic, the volume being a 12mo edition of Terence (postdated 1758), which he had set up and corrected himself. His apprenticeship expired 1 April 1759, and on 22 Sept. following he became under agreement with Messrs. Murray & Cochrane, printers in Edinburgh, corrector in connection with the ‘Scots Magazine.’ There he was allowed three hours a day for his studies at the university. At one time he seems to have thought of preparing for the church.

In 1760 he was one of the founders of the Newtonian Society, which was started by young men desirous of mutual improvement, and in the same year he took up botany and employed his reading-boy, Pillans, to assist in collecting plants. He brought together a considerable herbarium. In 1765 he gained a gold medal for a ‘Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants,’ in which he opposed the teachings of Linnæus, and which evoked a reply from Dr. J. Rotheram. At one time he was selected by his professor, Dr. John Hope (1725–1786) [q. v.], to carry on the lectures during the latter's temporary absence.

On 25 March 1765, with the assistance of Dr. Hope and Dr. James Robertson, the professor of oriental languages, Smellie commenced business on his own account in partnership with his fellow apprentice William Auld, and Robert Auld, a writer in Edinburgh. In 1766 the last named withdrew, and John Balfour, one of Smellie's former masters, was admitted instead. Owing to a disagreement with Smellie, W. Auld retired in 1771. Smellie and Balfour then carried on the business together, Lord Kames becoming surety for 300l. to the bankers on Smellie's behalf. The firm became printers to the university, and among other noted books they produced ‘Domestic Medicine,’ by Dr. William Buchan [q. v.], to whom Smellie rendered material assistance in its compilation. In 1771 was printed the first edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ in three volumes, for Messrs. Bell & Farquhar, Smellie undertaking no less than fifteen capital sciences, besides preparing the work for the press, for all of which he only received 200l. He was invited in 1776 to superintend the second edition, but declined because biographical articles were to be included; he, however, subsequently wrote a notice of his friend Lord Kames for the third edition. In October 1773 he started, in conjunction with Dr. Gilbert Stuart [q. v.], a monthly periodical, ‘The Edinburgh Magazine and Review,’ which was discontinued in August 1776.

On the death of Dr. Ramsay in 1775, Smellie unsuccessfully applied for the post of professor of natural history in the university. In 1778 he joined in the formation of the Newtonian Club, and was elected secretary. He also joined the Philosophical (afterwards the Royal) Society of Edinburgh. Of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, founded in 1780, Smellie was an original member, and the following year he was elected keeper and superintendent of the museum of natural history, which it was proposed to add to their antiquarian cabinet. About the same time he drew up a plan for procuring a statistical account of the parishes of Scotland, in anticipation of a scheme which was afterwards carried out by Sir John Sinclair [q. v.] He was secretary of the Scottish Antiquaries in 1793. A series of lectures to be delivered by Smellie, in connection with the museum, on the philosophy of natural history was projected, but had to be abandoned on account of the jealous opposition offered by Dr. Walker, the professor of natural history in the university.

On 14 Sept. 1782 the firm changed to Creech & Smellie, and when the former retired in 1789 Smellie did not take another partner. During later years his health became infirm, and he died in Edinburgh, after a long illness, on 24 June 1795. In 1763 he married Jean, daughter of John Robertson, an army agent in London. His wife survived him with four sons, of whom Alexander succeeded to the business, and four daughters, of whom one married the portrait-painter, George Watson [q. v.]

As he advanced in years, Smellie developed a slouching gait and became somewhat slovenly in his dress and appearance. Burns, whom he introduced in 1787 to the Crochallan Club, referred to him in his good-humoured satire of the ‘Crochallan Fencibles,’ concluding with the lines:

And, though his caustic wit was biting rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent, and good.

There is a portrait, by George Watson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, as well as a bust by R. Cummings.

In addition to many miscellaneous essays in various periodicals and other works, Smellie produced:

  1. ‘Thesaurus Medicus, sive disputationum in Academia Edinensi ad rem medicam pertinentium … delectus,’ 4 vols. 8vo, Edinburgh, 1778–85.
  2. ‘An Account of the Institution and Progress of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,’ 2 pts. 4to, Edinburgh, 1782–4.
  3. ‘An Address to the People of Scotland, on … Juries, by a Juryman,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1784.
  4. ‘The Philosophy of Natural History,’ 2 vols. (vol. ii. edited by his son A. Smellie), 4to, Edinburgh, 1790–9; this went through six American editions and one for the blind, and was translated into German with notes by C. A. W. Zimmermann.
  5. ‘Literary and Characteristical Lives of J. Gregory, M.D., Lord Kames, David Hume, and Adam Smith,’ published posthumously by his son Alexander in 1800, Edinburgh, 8vo.

He also translated and edited Buffon's ‘Natural History’ (9 vols. 8vo, Edinburgh, 1781; 3rd edit. 1791), and the ‘Natural History of Birds’ (9 vols. 8vo, London, 1793); his notes to both were reproduced in Wood's edition of Buffon in 1812.

[Kerr's Memoirs of the Life … of W. Smellie, 2 vols. with portrait; Memoir in Jardine's Naturalists' Library; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Anderson's Scottish Nation, iii. 477; Encyclopædia Britannica, 8th edit. xx. 336; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.]

B. B. W.