Tripti Joshi (Editor)

Thomas Southwood Smith

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Thomas Smith


Caroline Southwood Hill

Thomas Southwood Smith httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonscc

December 10, 1861, Florence, Italy

Illustrations of the Divine Government

Similar People
Jeremy Bentham, Charles Dickens, George Gordon Byron, William Wordsworth

University of Edinburgh

(Thomas) Southwood Smith (21 December 1788 – 10 December 1861) was an English physician and sanitary reformer.


Early life

Smith's life up to 1812 remains poorly documented. He was born at Martock, Somerset, into a Baptist family, his parents being William Smith and Caroline Southwood. In 1802 he was sent to the Baptist Academy in Bristol; but he left and broke with his family. He married in 1808, but his wife Anne died in 1812, leaving him two daughters. In this period Smith's contact with William Blake at Crewkerne was significant: Blake put him in touch with John Prior Estlin at Lewin's Mead. Another friend, and Unitarian convert from Baptism who became a physician, was Benjamin Spencer.

Medical man

Smith entered the University of Edinburgh in October 1812, and in November took over the Unitarian congregation meeting in Skinners' Hall, Canongate, which had stayed together without a minister since the death in 1795 of James Purves; he raised the attendance sharply. In June 1813 he began a course of fortnightly evening lectures on universal restoration; these were published in 1816 and made him a literary reputation. Also in 1813 he founded the Scottish Unitarian Association, with James Yates.

In 1816 he took his M.D. degree, and began to practice at Yeovil, Somerset, also becoming minister at a chapel in that town, but moved in 1820 to London, devoting himself mainly to medicine.

Public health

In 1824 Smith was appointed physician to the London Fever Hospital. The following year he began to write papers on public health. His post gave him the opportunity to study diseases of poverty. In the late 1830s, with Neil Arnott and James Phillips Kay, he was one of the first doctors brought in to report to the Poor Law Commission. In 1842 he was one of the founders of an early housing association, the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes.

Smith was a close ally on public health matters with Edwin Chadwick, and like him supported the miasma theory. From 1848 to 1854 they worked closely together at the Central Board of Health. But the appointment of Lord Seymour made their work very difficult, despite the support of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.

Smith was frequently consulted in fever epidemics and on sanitary matters by public authorities. His reports on quarantine (1845), cholera (1850), yellow fever (1852), and on the results of sanitary improvement (1854) were of international importance.

Later life

Smith died in Florence in 1861 and is interred there in the English Cemetery of Florence, his tombstone, an obelisk with a cameo portrait, was sculpted by Joel Tanner Hart. His daughter Emily, who died in 1872, is buried beside him.

Bentham dissection

Southwood Smith was a dedicated utilitarian, and a close friend of Jeremy Bentham. He had a particular interest in applying his philosophical beliefs to the field of medical research. In 1827 he published The Use of the Dead to the Living, a pamphlet which argued that the current system of burial was a wasteful use of bodies that could otherwise be used for dissection by the medical profession.

On 9 June 1832, Southwood Smith carried out the highly controversial public dissection of Jeremy Bentham (who had died 3 days earlier) at the Webb Street School of Anatomy in London. In a speech before the dissection, Southwood Smith argued that

"If, by any appropriation of the dead, I can promote the happiness of the living, then it is my duty to conquer the reluctance I may feel to such a disposition of the dead, however well-founded or strong that reluctance may be".

Smith's lobbying helped lead to the 1832 Anatomy Act, the legislation which allowed the state to seize unclaimed corpses from workhouses and sell them to surgical schools. While this act is credited with ending the practice of grave robbery, it has also been condemned as discriminatory against the poor.


In 1830 Smith published A Treatise on Fever, which became a standard authority on the subject. In this book he established a direct connection between the impoverishment of the poor and epidemic fever. The underlying theory opposed contagion as a mechanism of spread of disease, and postulated no pathogen that was airborne; it argued that the exclusion of "pure air" could suffice to create mortal disease.


Smith was twice married, and left by his first marriage (to Anne Read) two daughters Caroline and Emily; by his second marriage (to a daughter Mary of John Christie of Hackney) an only son, Herman (died 23 July 1897, aged 77). Miranda and Octavia Hill were his granddaughters, among the five daughters of Caroline (b. 1809) who married James Hill in 1835, and as Caroline Southwood Hill was known as a writer and educationalist. His other daughter was Emily (b. 1810).

Smith had separated from his second wife by the end of the 1830s, and then lived for the rest of his life with the artist Margaret Gillies.


Thomas Southwood Smith Wikipedia

Similar Topics