Smith, James (1782-1867) (DNB00)

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SMITH, JAMES, known as ‘Smith of Jordanhill’ (1782–1867), geologist and man of letters, was born at Glasgow 15 Aug. 1782. He was the eldest son of Archibald Smith (d. 1821), West India merchant, and Isobel Ewing (d 1855, aged 100). He was educated at the grammar school, Edinburgh, and the university of Glasgow, and became a sleeping partner in the firm of Leitch & Smith, West India merchants. Science, literature, and the fine arts were, however, the business of his life, and he was a collector of rare books, particularly those relating to early voyages and travels. He was also an enthusiastic yachtsman, one of the earliest members of both the Royal and the Royal Northern Yacht clubs; his first cruise in his own vessel being made in 1806, and his last in 1866. He was for a time an officer in the Renfrewshire militia, and happened to be on duty at the Tower of London during the imprisonment of Sir Francis Burdett [q. v.]

Smith's fondness for the sea and practical knowledge of navigation were indirectly helpful in his scientific and literary work. His earliest published paper was on ‘A Whirlwind at Roseneath’ (Edinb. Phil. Journ. 1822, p. 331); his next on ‘A Vitrified Fort’ (Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb. x. 79), discovered accidentally on landing from his yacht in the Kyles of Bute. The raised beaches and other indications of comparatively recent changes in the relative level of sea and land, so conspicuous on the west coast of Scotland, next attracted his attention, and he perceived that the molluscs which occur in them differ in certain respects from those now living on the same coast. An explanation of this fact was sought in cruises for dredging in the northern seas, when he ascertained that species now extinct in Scottish waters were still living in more arctic regions. This led him to maintain, in a paper read to the Geological Society of London in 1836, that in Britain, at a time comparatively recent, the temperature had been much lower than at present.

Jordanhill, near Glasgow, was Smith's residence, but from 1839 to 1846 regard for the health of some members of his family caused him to spend much time out of Britain, and he wintered successively at Madeira, Gibraltar, Lisbon, and Malta. He seized the opportunities of studying the geology of these places, and communicated the results to the Geological Society of London, in the journal of which he also published a paper (iii. 234) on changes of land and sea in the Mediterranean, especially as indicated by the well-known Temple of Serapis near Pozzuoli. Glacial questions were resumed in a paper to the same society in 1845, and the subject was continued in 1847 and 1848. Here, while admitting the former existence of glaciers in Britain, he combatted the extreme views as to the extension of land-ice which then were being advocated by Agassiz, and he preferred to attribute much of the boulder clay to the action of coast-ice during a period of submergence. Altogether he appears to have written sixteen separate papers on scientific subjects, most of them published in the journal of the above-named society. In 1862 he republished the majority of them, after some revision, in a small volume entitled ‘Studies in Newer Pliocene and Post-Tertiary Geology,’ which indicates the importance of his contributions to this branch of the science.

But Smith's most important book was historical rather than geological, viz. his ‘Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul,’ published in 1848 (4th edit. 1880). His practical knowledge of seamanship fitted him to discuss this question, and his treatise is one of the highest value, in regard not only to the place of the shipwreck, but also to some wider questions. He maintained that internal evidence proved the account to have been written by an eye-witness and a landsman, repudiating the idea that the island was Melida in the Adriatic, and identifying the locality of the wreck with St. Paul's Bay, Malta, to which it had been traditionally assigned. Smith read the proof-sheets of Conybeare and Howson's ‘Life of St. Paul,’ which embodies his conclusions respecting the wreck. Smith's treatise was translated into German, and is generally recognised as a standard authority on ancient ship-building and navigation. Incidentally Smith was led into a discussion relating to the authors of the synoptic gospels, and in a later treatise (‘Dissertation on the Origin and Connection of the Gospels,’ 1853) he worked out the question by a minute comparison of the parallel passages in the three authors, maintaining that St. Luke, in writing his gospel, made use of the other two, viz. that by St. Matthew, and a Hebrew original (probably written by St. Peter) afterwards translated by St. Mark.

He was elected F.G.S. in 1836 and F.R.S. in 1830. He was also F.R.S.E. and F.R.G.S., fellow and for a time president of the Geological Society of Glasgow, and for many years president of the Andersonian University, of which he was an active supporter, presenting its museum with valuable collections. He enjoyed excellent health till the spring of 1866, when he had a slight paralytic stroke; he recovered from this, but another at the end of the year proved fatal on 17 Jan. 1867. In 1809 he married Mary (d 1847), daughter of Alexander Wilson and granddaughter of Professor Alexander Wilson of Glasgow. Archibald Smith [q. v.] was their son.

A photographic portrait was prefixed to Smith's ‘Voyage of St. Paul’ (2nd edit. 1880).

[Obituary Notices, Glasgow Geol. Soc. Trans. ii. 228; Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. vol. xxii.; Proc. p. xlvi; Proc. Roy. Soc. 1868, p. xlii; Roy. Soc. Cat. of Papers.]

T. G. B.