Smellie, William

, a naturalist of some eminence, was born in the Pleasaunce, one of the suburbs of the city of Edinburgh, in 1740. His father, Alexander Smellie, was a master-builder and stone-mason, and a good classical scholar. William was educated at a school in the village of Duddingstone, near his paternal residence, and, when about twelve years old, was bound apprentice to Messrs. Hamilton, Balfour, and Neil, printers in Edinburgh, for the term of six years and a half. Such was his diligence and attention to the business, tHat, two years before the expiration of his apprenticeship, he was intrusted with the correction of the press, and during this time he attended some of the classes of the university. Tn 1757 the Edinburgh Philosophical Society having offered a prize for the most accurate edition of a Latin classic, Mr. Smellie, his biographer says, printed an edition of Terence, to which the prize was adjudged. It was published in 1758, and is mentioned by Dr. Harvvood and his successors in Classical Bibliography, as an immaculate edition; but they mention it as printed by Messrs. Hamilton, Balfour, and Neil, without any notice of Smellie. His biographer’s account is, that when the prize was offered, “Mr. Smellie, in the name of his masters, became a competitor, and produced an edition of Terence, in duodecimo, the whole of which | he set up and corrected himself, and for which the prize (a silver medal) was awarded to his masters I” The fact we suspect to be, tlut his masters procured a correct text of Ten nee, prepared for the press by some scholar, and employed their apprentice to execute the mechanical part of composing and correcting the errors of the press. The ediiion itself is certainly a very beautiful piece of typography.

In April 1759, when Mr. Smellie’s apprenticeship expired, he entered into an engagement with Messrs. Murray and Cochrane, printers in Edinburgh, to correct the press, and collect articles for the “Scots Magazine,” printed by them, &e. In this employment he continued until 1765, when he entered into business as a printer on his own account. While in the service of Messrs. Murray, he employed his leisure time in attending the university lectures, on literature in general, and on medicine, botany, chemistry, &c. To the study of natural history he became early attached: and in 1760 had collected an extensive series of plants, which he presented to Dr. Hope, then professor of botany. He afterwards, in 1764, gained a prize medal for a “Dissertation on the sexes of Plants,” in opposition to the opinions of Linnæus. The substance of this he published in the first volume of his “Philosophy of Natural History.” While he attended the bojtanical lectures, they were interrupted by Dr. Hope’s confinement in consequence of a hurt; and on this occasion the doctor was so sensible of Mr. Smellie’s abilities, that he requested him ts> continue the lectures during his absence, which Mr. Smellie did for about, six weeks, to the entire satisfaction of his fellow-students.

An honour like this, for an honour it certainly was, could not fail to make his abilities known and his friends began now to solicit him to follow one of the learned professions-, but this he declined. He had indeed gone through a complete course o; studies connected with medicine, but the only result of his labour was the assistance he gave Dr. Buchan in the compilation of that very popular work, “Domestic Medicine,” first published in 1770. In 1765, as before noticed, he commenced business as a printer with Messrs. William and Robert Auld; and about two years after Mr. John Balfour was added to the firm, but before 1771 the Messrs. Auld had quitted it.

One of Mr. Sinellie’s earliest literary schemes was the first edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” 3 vols. | 4to, published in 1771. Of this he composed, or compiled, the principal articles, and superintended the whole; for which he received the sum of 2007. from the proprietors; but he declined taking any concern in the second or subsequent editions. In 1773, in conjunction with Dr. Gilbert Stuart, he engaged in a new monthly work, entitled “The Edinburgh Magazine and Review,” which, says his biographer, “would have succeeded, if the management had been entirely committed to the calm, judicious, and conciliatory controul of Mr. Smellie. But owing to the harsh irritability of temper, and the severe and almost indiscriminate satire in which Dr. Stuart indulged, several of the Reviews gave great offence to many leading characters of the day, which occasioned the sale to be so much diminished as to render it a losing concern to the adventurers, insomuch that it was discontinued in 1776, after the production of forty-seven numbers,” &c. It appears, however, from the long account given of this Review, by his biographer, that Mr. Smellie partook largely in the arrogance, gross levity, and want of feeling, which distinguished Dr. Stuart’s writings. The wonder is, that they should not succeed in a mode of reviewing, now so popular. In 1781, Mr. Smellie published his translation of Buffon’s Natural History, in 8 vols. 8vo, which became a favourite, and has often been reprinted.

In 1790, Mr. Smellie published the first volume of the only work, except his translation of Buffon, for which he is likely to be remembered, “The Philosophy of Natural History,” 4to. This alone, says his biographer, would have amply sufficed to establish the fame of Mr. Smellie as a man of learning and talents, if his name had never been, conjoined with any other literary enterprize. A second volume was left by him in manuscript, which was published after his death by his son, in 1799. Mr. Smellie proposed to have undertaken the composition of a series of biographical memoirs of the lives and writings of such authors as bad employed him to print their works. In this he had made some progress; and his lives of Hume, Smith, Monro, and Kames, have been since published, in one volume octavo; and although we are far from thinking them models in that species of composition, and consider the author as rather partial, we should have been happy to have the list completed which his biographer gives of intended lives. The Scotch literati have been too neglectful of their | eraihent men; but some excellent specimens have lately appeared, as Forbes’s Life of Beattie, and lord Woodhouslee’s Life of Kames; and we hope for more from men of equal talents.

Mr. Smellie died June 24-, 1795; and from the elaborate character given of him by his biographer we should have little inclination to make any deductions, if he had not too often presented us with traits of character by no means of the amiable kind, and if we did not find in his works certain impious levities which are unpardonable. Mr. Smellie’s memory will be best preserved by his “Philosophy of Natural History,” and his translation of Buffon; but he cannot be elevated to the rank of a hero in literature. 1

1 Life by Mr. Kerr, 1811, 2 vols, 8vo.