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Dr Thomas Southwood Smith ( 1788-1861)

This article was written by Alexander Gordon and was published in1897

Thomas Southwood Smith

Thomas Southwood Smith, MD, sanitary reformer, was born at Martock, Somerset, on 21 December 1788. His studies for the ministry were encouraged by William Blake (1773-1821), of whom he wrote a touching memoir. According to family tradition, his ministry was first exercised among evangelical dissenters in the west of England. Having become a widower, and intending to combine with the preacher's office the practice of medicine, he entered as a medical student at Edinburgh in October 1812, and in November took the vacant charge of the unitarian congregation then meeting in Skinners' Hall, Canongate, where he raised the attendance from twenty to nearly two hundred.

In June 1813 he began a course of fortnightly evening lectures on universal restoration; these were published by subscription as ‘Illustrations of the Divine Government’, and form a closely reasoned treatise, rising on occasion to passages of remarkable eloquence. The main thesis is that pain is corrective. The work won the favour of poets; Byron, Moore, Wordsworth, Crabbe were its warm admirers. On 28 July 1813 he assisted in the formation of the Scottish Unitarian Association, became its first secretary, and published an ‘Appeal’ (1815) in defence of its cause. In 1814 his congregation moved to an old episcopal chapel (St. Andrew's) in Carrubber's Close, High Street. He graduated M.D. on 1 August 1816, publishing his thesis, ‘De mente morbis læsa,’ with a dedication to Thomas Belsham. In the same year he succeeded Samuel Fawcett as minister at Vicarage Street Chapel, Yeovil, Somerset, practising also as a physician. He published a few sermons of merit; his funeral sermon (1821) for Thomas Howe (1759?-1820) is specially noted by Dr. James Martineau. In 1820 he removed to London, devoting himself to the medical profession, yet still preaching occasionally.

Southwood Smith was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians on 25 June 1821 (fellow, 9 July 1847). He was one of the projectors of the ‘Westminster Review,’ and wrote for its first number (January 1824) an article on Bentham's system of education. In the same year he contributed an article, ‘The Use of the Dead to the Living,’ advocating facilities for dissection; this was reprinted in 1824 and subsequently. In 1824 he was appointed physician to the London Fever Hospital and subsequently to the Eastern Dispensary and to the Jews' Hospital. He was one of the original committee (April 1825) of the ‘Useful Knowledge’ society; wrote for it a ‘Treatise on Animal Physiology’ (1829, 8vo), contributed to its ‘Penny Cyclopædia’ (1832-45) the chief articles on anatomy, medicine, and physiology; and added to its publications a treatise on ‘The Philosophy of Health’. Meanwhile he had embodied the result of devoted labours for his public patients, in ward and home, in ‘A Treatise on Fever’ (1830), which at once took rank as an authority. To epidemic fever he largely traced the impoverishment of the poor, and showed that it is preventible. From this work dates his remarkable career as a sanitary reformer.

Jeremy Bentham had by will left his body to Smith, to be the subject of dissection and an anatomical lecture. Smith performed this task at the anatomy school, Webb Street, Mars Pond, on 9 June 1832, delivering a lecture, of which two editions were published in the same year. It embodied a sketch of Bentham's philosophy and an account of his last moments. A thunderstorm shook the building during its delivery, yet Smith proceeded ‘with a clear unfaltering voice, but with a face as white as that of the dead philosopher before him.’ Brougham, Mill, and Grote were present. The skeleton, dressed in Bentham's clothes, with a waxen head, was kept in a mahogany cabinet in Smith's consulting-room at Finsbury Square; when he left this, it was transferred to University College, Gower Street, where it still remains.

In 1832 Smith was placed on the central board for inquiry into the condition of factory children, an inquiry the precursor of the existing factory acts. More than once the poor-law commissioners sought his aid in typhus epidemic; hence his reports (1835-1839) on the preventible causes of sickness and mortality among the poor. His first report on sanitary improvement (1838) began a series, presented at intervals till 1857. In 1839 he was a main founder of the ‘Health of Towns Association,’ gave evidence on this subject (1840) to a committee of the House of Commons, and served (1840) on the children's employment commission. He did much to found (1842) the ‘Metropolitan Association for improving the Dwellings of the Industrial Classes,’ which built the first ‘model’ dwellings, designed to exclude epidemics by due sanitary conditions; gave evidence (1844) before a commission of inquiry into the health of towns, was on the metropolitan sanitary commission (1847), and was appointed (1848) medical member of the ‘general board of health,’ giving his services gratuitously at first, but receiving a permanent appointment in 1850, when he gave up professional practice. His reports on quarantine (1845), cholera (1850), yellow fever (1852), and on the results of sanitary improvement (1854) were of world-wide use.

In 1855 he delivered two lectures on ‘Epidemics’ at the Edinburgh ‘philosophical institution;’ on this occasion he revisited Skinners' Hall, then occupied by one of the ragged schools established by Thomas Guthrie, D.D.. His unsparing devotion to philanthropic labour had told upon his constitution, and he seemed an older man than he was; his speech was slow, but his rich voice and dignified manner made his delivery very impressive. Though he had earned the gratitude of nations, he retired on a very moderate pension. In October 1861, having recovered from a serious illness, he went to winter at Florence. At the beginning of December a short attack of bronchitis proved fatal. He died on 10 December 1861, and was buried in the protestant cemetery outside the Porta Pinti, Forence, where is a monument to his memory with medallion portrait. His bust, executed (1856) at Florence by J. Hart, is in the National Portrait Gallery, presented (February 1872) by a committee for the purpose. He was twice married, and left by his first marriage (to Miss Reade) two daughters; by his second marriage (to a daughter of John Christie of Hackney) an only son, Herman (d. 23 July 1897, aged 77).

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