Biography of Sir James Edward Smith

Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828) MD, FRS, PLS

James Edward Smith was one of the most preeminent British botanists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was a principal founding member and first President of the Linnean Society of London. Smith was a prolific author who helped introduce and popularise botany with new audiences.

Early life

James Smith (1727-1795)

Smith was born on 2 December 1759 at Norwich, Norfolk, to James Smith (1727-1795) and Frances (1731-1820). A sickly child, he began his botanical studies reportedly on the day of Carl Linnaeus’ (1707-1778) death, 10 January 1778. In 1781 Smith enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, the only way to study botany at university at the time. Smith moved to London in 1783 to continue his medical studies, without taking a degree. Following the death of Carl Linnaeus the younger (1741-1783), and with the assistance of Sir Joseph Banks' (1743-1820) connections and his father's finances Smith purchased the collections of Carl Linnaeus for 1,000 guineas. This brought Smith instant regard within the scientific community and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785. In 1786 Smith embarked on a tour of Europe, gaining a medical degree at Leyden, Holland, before travelling through France, Switzerland, and Italy, where he met many of the greatest botanists and scientists of the period.

Founding of the Linnean Society and publications

serial publication English Botany

In 1788 Smith founded the Linnean Society of London with Samuel Goodenough (1743-1827) and Thomas Marsham (1748-1819), and became its first President, a position he held for life. His first major serial publication, English Botany, a collaboration with illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822), appeared in 1790, which with subsequent works Flora Britannica (1800-1804) and The English Flora (1824-1828) proved to be among the most popular, accessible, and accurate records of the British flora to date. Again in collaboration with Sowerby, A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland (1793-1795), was the first published book on the flora of Australia. He also edited and translated several works by Linnaeus, and edited John Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca (1806-1837). Smith contributed many papers to Transactions of the Linnean Society of London and other journals.

Smith held regular lectures in Liverpool and at the Royal Institution in London, and also took on private pupils, including Queen Charlotte and the Princesses. His works An Introduction to Physiological and Systematical Botany (1807) and A grammar of botany (1821) helped introduce botany to new audiences and were reprinted several times. His status as keeper of Linnaeus’ scientific reputation gave Smith a privileged position amongst Europe’s botanists, and he was regularly sent new plant specimens from around the world to identify and classify.

Later life

Smith married Pleasance Reeve (1773-1877) on 1 March 1796 and they moved to Norwich in 1797. They never had children. Smith was knighted in 1814, and from 1813 to 1819 was involved in an ill fated campaign to become Professor of Botany at Cambridge University. Smith was a nonconformist and supported causes including the abolition of slavery and Greek independence, and his criticism of the French monarchy ended his professional relationship with Queen Charlotte.

A prolific correspondent, Smith communicated with many important botanists and scientists, including Sir Joseph Banks, Robert Brown (1773-1858), Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), and William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865).

Smith built up an extensive library and herbarium to compliment the Linnaean collections, all of which were purchased by the Linnean Society after his death on 17 March 1828.