Smith, James Edward,
(1759 - 1828)
James Edward Smith, botanist, and first president of the Linnaean Society of London, was born on December 2, 1759 in Norwich, England. He was the eldest of seven children of a wealthy wool merchant, James Smith and his wife, Frances Kinderley. The father was well educated and a prominent member of the Dissenter community which included about one-third of the Norwich population. James Edward was a frail and timid child, and so his early education was entirely at home. His father engaged tutors for him and his mother encouraged an interest in plants and gardening; his own account relates that he began the serious study of botany when he was eighteen.
Smith’s father hoped that he would enter the family business, but that prospect did not attract him, and, in 1781, he entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student. At that time, it was only possible to attend lectures in botany as a medical student. A further consideration, which led him to Edinburgh, was that neither Oxford nor Cambridge admitted non-Anglicans. After two years, Smith continued his medical education in London, and had barely settled in when he heard from his friend, Sir Joseph Banks, that the whole collection of Carl Linnaeus was up for sale. Smith consulted his father and the result was that the collection was purchased for the sum of 900 guineas, and arrived in London in October 1784. It consisted of Linnaeus’ library and herbarium, letters and manuscripts and much more, and was initially housed in rented rooms in London.
In London, Smith found his continuing medical education to be more and more unattractive, so he resolved to terminate it by obtaining a medical degree from the University of Leiden. This was accomplished in 1785, and he then set out on a European tour that included France and Italy. In 1788, he was back in London but he had little inclination to practice medicine, and began to devote himself to natural history studies. To this end, and because of his possession of the Linnaeus collections, he, along with Joseph Banks and others, founded the Linnaean Society of London with an original list of thirty-six Fellows, sixteen Associates, and more than fifty foreign members.
Smith lived in London until 1797, when he moved with his wife to Norwich with plans to spend only three months in London thereafter. The reasons for this were his continuing poor health and the fact that neither he nor his wife were interested in the society or social diversions which a great city offered. Smith’s colleagues in the Society were very upset at the idea that their president would not reside in town, but he kept these arrangements for the rest of his life. He made annual visits to London, maintained a voluminous correspondence with members of the Society and numerous others, and devoted the rest of his time to writing and lecturing.
The writings of James Edward Smith are a huge chapter in English botanical literature. They include over 3000 contributions to Rees’s Cyclopaedia (39 volumes, 1802-20), seven and a half volumes of Flora Graeca, which was the major work begun in the late 18th century by John Sibthorp, Oxford Professor of Botany; Flora Britannica, (2 volumes, 1800); English Botany, published and illustrated by James Sowerby, botanical text by Smith, (36 volumes, 1790-1814); The English Flora, (4 volumes, (1824-28).
Margot Walker, Sir James Edward Smith, 1759-1828. London: 1988
Lady Smith, Memoir and Correspondence of the Late Sir James Edward Smith, M.D. London: 1832
Frans A. Stafleu, Taxonomic Literature, vol. 5. Pp. 679-680. Utrecht: 1985