Thomas Southwood Smith

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Southwood Smith, 1844 engraving by James Charles Armytage. Southwood-smith.jpg
Southwood Smith, 1844 engraving by James Charles Armytage.

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

Physician professional who practices medicine

A physician, medical practitioner, medical doctor, or simply doctor is a professional who practises medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining, or restoring health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. Physicians may focus their practice on certain disease categories, types of patients and methods of treatment—known as specialities—or they may assume responsibility for the provision of continuing and comprehensive medical care to individuals, families, and communities—known as general practice. Medical practice properly requires both a detailed knowledge of the academic disciplines underlying diseases and their treatment—the science of medicine—and also a decent competence in its applied practice—the art or craft of medicine.


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. [1] 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. [2]

Martock village and civil parish in Somerset, England

Martock is a large village and civil parish in Somerset, England, situated on the edge of the Somerset Levels 7 miles (11.3 km) north west of Yeovil in the South Somerset district. The parish includes Hurst, approximately one mile south of the village, and Bower Hinton, which is located at the western end of the village and bounded by Hurst and the A303. Martock has a population of 4,766 and was historically a market town.

Somerset County of England

Somerset is a county in South West England which borders Gloucestershire and Bristol to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east and Devon to the south-west. It is bounded to the north and west by the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel, its coastline facing southeastern Wales. Its traditional border with Gloucestershire is the River Avon. Somerset's county town is Taunton.

Bristol Place in England

Bristol is a city and county in South West England with a population of 459,300. The wider district has the 10th-largest population in England. The urban area population of 724,000 is the 8th-largest in the UK. The city borders North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, with the cities of Bath and Gloucester to the south-east and north-east, respectively. South Wales lies across the Severn estuary.

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. [3] [4] Also in 1813 he founded the Scottish Unitarian Association, with James Yates. [5]

University of Edinburgh public research university in Edinburgh, Scotland

The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582, is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of Scotland's ancient universities. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city of Edinburgh, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university. The university played an important role in leading Edinburgh to its reputation as a chief intellectual centre during the Age of Enlightenment, and helped give the city the nickname of the Athens of the North.

Unitarianism is a Christian theological movement named for its belief that the God in Christianity is one person, as opposed to the Trinity which defines God as three persons in one being; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unitarian Christians, therefore, believe that Jesus was inspired by God in his moral teachings, and he is a savior, but he was not a deity or God incarnate. Unitarianism does not constitute one single Christian denomination, but rather refers to a collection of both extant and extinct Christian groups, whether historically related to each other or not, which share a common theological concept of the oneness nature of God.

James Purves (1734–1795) was a Scottish universalist minister.

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.

Yeovil Town in Somerset, England

Yeovil is an English town and civil parish in the district of South Somerset, with a population of 45,000. It is close to Somerset's southern border with Dorset, 130 miles (210 km) from London, 40 miles (64 km) south of Bristol, 6 miles (9.7 km) from Sherborne and 30 miles (48 km) from Taunton. The aircraft and defence industries developed in the 20th century made it a target for bombing in the Second World War. They are still major employers. Yeovil Country Park, which includes Ninesprings, is one of several open spaces with educational, cultural and sporting facilities. Religious sites include the 14th-century Church of St John the Baptist. The town is on the A30 and A37 roads and has two railway stations.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

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. [6] In 1842 he was one of the founders of an early housing association, the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes. [7]

London Fever Hospital Hospital in England

The London Fever Hospital was a voluntary hospital financed from public donations in Liverpool Road in London.

Public health preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through organized efforts and informed choices of society and individuals

Public health has been defined as "the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting human health through organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals". Analyzing the health of a population and the threats it faces is the basis for public health. The public can be as small as a handful of people or as large as a village or an entire city; in the case of a pandemic it may encompass several continents. The concept of health takes into account physical, psychological and social well-being. As such, according to the World Health Organization, it is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Diseases of poverty is the term used to describe diseases that are more prevalent in low-income populations. It includes infectious diseases as well as diseases related to malnutrition and poor health behaviors. Poverty is one of the major social determinants of health. The World Health Report, 2002 states that diseases of poverty account for 45% of the disease burden in the countries with high poverty rate which are preventable or treatable with exciting interventions. Diseases of poverty are often co-morbid and ubiquitous with malnutrition.

Smith was a close ally on public health matters with Edwin Chadwick, and like him supported the miasma theory. [8] From 1848 to 1854 they worked closely together at the Central Board of Health. [6] But the appointment of Lord Seymour made their work very difficult, despite the support of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. [9]

Edwin Chadwick British social reformer

Sir Edwin Chadwick KCB was an English social reformer who is noted for his leadership in reforming the Poor Laws in England and instituting major reforms in urban sanitation and public health. A disciple of Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was most active between 1832 and 1854; after that he held minor positions, and his views were largely ignored. Chadwick pioneered the use of scientific surveys to identify all phases of a complex social problem, and pioneered the use of systematic long-term inspection programmes to make sure the reforms operated as planned.

Miasma theory Obsolete medical theory about the transmission of diesease through bad air

The miasma theory is an obsolete medical theory that held that diseases—such as cholera, chlamydia, or the Black Death—were caused by a miasma, a noxious form of "bad air", also known as night air. The theory held that the origin of epidemics was due to a miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter. Though miasma theory is typically associated with the spread of disease, some academics in the early nineteenth century suggested that the theory extended to other conditions as well, e.g. one could become obese by inhaling the odor of food.

Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset British aristocrat and Whig politician

Edward Adolphus Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset, etc.,, styled Lord Seymour until 1855, was a British Whig aristocrat and politician, who served in various cabinet positions in the mid-19th century, including that of First Lord of the Admiralty.

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. [10]


Smith was twice married, and left by his first marriage (to Anne Read) [1] [11] 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). [3] 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). [12] [13]

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. [14]

Further reading

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  1. 1 2 Dorothy Porter (January 1993). Doctors, politics and society: historical essays. Rodopi. p. 53. ISBN   978-90-5183-510-6 . Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  2. Webb, R. K. "Smith, Thomas Southwood". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25917.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. 1 2 Wikisource-logo.svg "Smith, Thomas Southwood". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  4. Wikisource-logo.svg "Purves, James". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  5. Wikisource-logo.svg "Yates, James (1789-1871)". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  6. 1 2 Amanda J. Thomas (2010). The Lambeth cholera outbreak of 1848-1849: the setting, causes, course and aftermath of an epidemic in London. McFarland. pp. 55–6. ISBN   978-0-7864-3989-8 . Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  7. The Medical Times and Gazette. 1861. p. 652. Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  8. Margaret Stacey (1 June 2004). The Sociology of Health and Healing. Taylor and Francis. p. 69. ISBN   978-0-203-38004-8 . Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  9. Samuel Edward Finer (1952). The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick. Methuen. pp. 424–5. ISBN   978-0-416-17350-5 . Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  10. Andrew Cunningham (19 July 1990). The Medical Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. p. 318. ISBN   978-0-521-38235-9 . Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  11. Anne Read died of fever at age 24, leaving Smith a widower with two young children.
  12. Gertrude Hill Lewes (22 December 2011). Dr Southwood Smith: A Retrospect. Cambridge University Press. p. 9 notes. ISBN   978-1-108-03798-3 . Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  13. Gleadie, Kathyn. "Hill, Caroline Southwood". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/60328.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  14. Yeldham, Charlotte. "Gillies, Margaret Southwood". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/10745.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

Wikisource-logo.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : "Smith, Thomas Southwood". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Smith, Thomas Southwood". Encyclopædia Britannica . 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 270.