Lives of the fellows

Thomas Southwood Smith

b.21 December 1788 d.10 December 1861
MD Edin(1816) LRCP(1821) FRCP(1847)

Thomas Southwood Smith, M.D., was born on the 21st December, 1788, at Martock, in Somersetshire, and was educated for a dissenting minister, in which capacity he passed a few years in his native county; but then applying himself to medicine, proceeded to Edinburgh, and in the intervals of his college studies wrote his "Divine Government," which appeared in 1814, and at once brought him into notice and established his reputation as an original and eloquent writer. "In it there is nothing sectarian—the style is singularly lucid, its tone earnest, rising frequently into strains of touching and pathetic eloquence. Byron, Moore, and Wordsworth have each referred to this book in words of praise; it was always on Crabbe’s table; and it has carried balm to many a wounded heart and faith to many a doubting soul." Its argument is that pain is a corrective process, and that the whole human race will be finally saved. He graduated doctor of medicine at Edinburgh 1st August, 1816 (D.M.I. de Mente Morbis læsa), and then spent a few years in the practice of his profession at a provincial town in the West of England, near the place of his birth.

Settling in London, he was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians 25th June, 1821, and a Fellow 9th July, 1847. He was appointed physician to the Fever hospital in 1824. From the commencement of his medical life, Dr. Smith had realised the fact that prevention of disease is easier and more important than its cure, and he applied himself specially to the improvement of sanitary medicine, of which most important science he was one of the earliest and most intelligent pioneers in this country. In 1839 he aided in the formation of the Health of Towns Association, and in 1842 took an active part in founding the Metropolitan Association for improving the Dwellings of the Industrial Classes.

His reports on the Physical Causes of Sickness and Mortality 1838-9; on Sanitary Improvement, 1838, 1846, 1849, 1850, 1851; on Quarantine, 1845; on Epidemic Cholera, 1850; on Yellow Fever, 1852, and on the results of Sanitary Improvement, 1854, are most valuable and instructive. It has indeed fallen to the lot of few to accomplish such extensive services for the public benefit as were rendered by Dr. Southwood Smith. He was the chief originator of the science of preventive medicine as systematically applied in this country, and he wonderfully succeeded by the clearness and force of his writings in popularising and making familiar the great principles of national health.

Dr. Southwood Smith’s efforts in this direction were at length rewarded by his appointment as a member of the General Board of Health, and by the grant of a moderate pension on his retirement. He died at Florence 10th December, 1861, aged seventy-three, after a six days’ illness of bronchitis, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery of that city.

Dr. Southwood Smith was the physician and intimate friend of Jeremy Bentham, who, with a view to the removal of prejudices then existing, gave his own body to Dr. Smith for dissection, charging him to devote it to the ordinary purposes of science. Dr. Smith faithfully discharged the office imposed upon him; and in the old theatre of the Webb-street school of medicine on the 9th June, 1832, with thunder pealing over head and lightning flashing through the gloom, he delivered the first lecture over the body of Bentham, "with a clear unfaltering voice, but with a face as white as that of the dead philosopher before him." Dr. Smith availed himself of the occasion to give a view of the fundamental principles of Bentham’s philosophy and an account of his last moments.

Most of the particular friends and disciples of the deceased, and among them lord Brougham, James Mill, and Grote were present on the occasion, and his biographer has made this lecture the concluding part of the Memoir prefixed to the edition of Bentham’s works. After the usual anatomical demonstrations on the body, a skskeleton was made of the bones, and a mask in wax of the face, and to these were adapted Bentham’s own clothes. The figure thus prepared and placed in the identical chair on which he usually sat, was enclosed in a mahogany case with glass doors, and was long a somewhat startling occupant of Dr. Southwood Smith’s consulting room. It now reposes in a back room in University college.(1)

Dr. Southwood Smith assisted in the establishment of the Westminster Review, and wrote an article on Education for the first number. For many years he was a regular contributor to its pages, and it was here that his article on the state of the Anatomical Schools first appeared, which attracted so much attention that it was reprinted in the form of a pamphlet with the title of " The Use of the Dead to the Living." The articles on Physiology and Medicine in the early numbers of the Penny Cyclopædia are from his pen, and the success of his treatise on Animal Physiology, written at the request of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, suggested to him the idea of treating this subject in a more elaborate and comprehensive manner, and led to the publication of his "Philosophy of Health."

Dr. Southwood Smith’s writings, in addition to the Reports above mentioned, were as follow:—
The Divine Government. 8vo. 1814.
A Treatise on Fever. 8vo. Lond. 1830.
The Philosophy of Health; or an Exposition of the Physical and Mental Constitution of Man: with a view to the promotion of Human Longevity and Happiness. 2 vols. 12mo. Lond. 1835-37. 11th edition. 8vo. Lond. 1865.
Epidemics considered with relation to their Common Nature and to Climate and Civilization. 12mo. Lond. 1856.

William Munk

[(1) The following extract from a letter of Dr. Southwood Smith’s to me dated 14th June, 1857, contains some particulars not generally known, and seems sufficiently interesting to warrant its insertion here: "Jeremy Bentham left by will his body to me for dissection. I was also to deliver a public lecture over his body to medical students and the public generally. The latter was done at the Webb-street school; Brougham, James Mill, Grote, and many other disciples of Bentham being present. After the usual anatomical demonstrations on the body, a skeleton was made of the bones. I endeavoured to preserve the head untouched, merely drawing away the fluids by placing it under an air pump over sulphuric acid. By this means the head was rendered as hard as the skulls of the New Zealanders; but all expression was of course gone. Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a model made in wax by a distinguished French artist, taken from David’s bust, Pickersgill’s picture, and my own ring. The artist succeeded in producing one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen. I then had the skeleton stuffed out to fit Bentham’s own clothes, and this wax likeness fitted to the trunk. This figure was placed seated in the chair on which he usually sat; and one hand holding the walking stick which was his constant companion when he was out, called by him Dapple. The whole was enclosed in a mahogany case with folding glass doors. When I removed from Finsbury -square I had no room large enough to hold the case. I therefore gave it to University college, where it now is. Any one may see it who inquires there for it, but no publicity is given to the fact that Bentham reposes there in some back room. The authorities seem to be afraid or ashamed to own their possession."]

(Volume III, page 235)

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