I wrote this essay in 2009.
“At the distance of Norwich you will be quite buried alive.”
We are overrun with anniversaries at the moment. It is Darwin’s 200th birthday this year; the father of modern taxonomy - Carl Gustav Linnaeus - celebrated his 300th birthday in 2007. Nicely sandwiched in between these two august scientists is our own local hero Sir James Edward Smith, whose 250th birthday it is this year.
James Edward Smith was the eldest of seven children of James Smith, a wealthy textile merchant. Smith developed an unquenchable enthusiasm for botany at an early age. According to The Worthies of Norwich (1892), he ‘longed to possess the delicate blue flowers of the wild succory as a small child…’ At that time, Norfolk, and in particular Norwich, was a hotbed of botanical enthusiasm. Smith became one of half-a-dozen or so botanists in Norwich who were ‘among the first to study the writings and adopt the system of Linnaeus.’ Smith wanted to study botany formally but in 1771 was sent to Edinburgh University to study medicine instead under John Hope, who as luck would have it was a proponent of the Linnaean system. When Smith moved to London two years later to study anatomy, Hope gave him a letter of introduction to give to Joseph Banks, that great patron of science. At a breakfast together one day, Banks revealed that he had been offered Linnaeus’ biological collection, but had refused it. He encouraged Smith to buy it himself. It would be no exaggeration to say that this was an extremely significant moment in the history of science in Britain.
The contribution of Linnaeus himself to botany and taxonomy (the naming and classification of living things) is immeasurable. His binomial (two name) system of describing plants and animals has been used ever since (familiar examples being Homo sapiens, people, and Rattus rattus, the black rat). His classification was the first attempt to apply structure to the bewildering array of wild things in the world. There were mistakes (like whales classified with fish), but Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae as his classification was called was the template for the biological classification scientists rely on today. The Systema Naturae was built upon a vast collection of plants and animals – and it was this, after its originator’s death and that of his son, which had suddenly become available to buy. It was the foremost store of biological knowledge in the world at that time.
Smith was lucky in his negotiations for the Linnaean collection (or Linnaean Cabinet, as it was known). The executor of Linnaeus junior’s will was determined to conclude negotiations with Smith before entertaining any other offers for the collection – those behind Smith in the queue including Catherine the Great of Russia. As luck would have it, Smith, by having first refusal, was certainly able to purchase the collection for a bargain price – although for what was still a vast some of money at the time.
In an excited letter to his father (who was funding the purchase), Smith listed the collection as including: 3198 species of insect, 1564 shells and another 200 “not arranged,” 2424 mineral specimens, including 108 of silver, 31 of gold, and 45 birds in glass cases. “Baron Alstromer is to have the small herbarium, and I am to give 900 guineas for the rest.” The collection set sail from Sweden on the 2nd of October, 1784, in 26 cases on The Appearance under Captain Axel Sweder. Smith remarked that the cases must themselves be vast, since the nearly 3000 books in the collection took up only 6 of the 26 cases.
At 1000 Guineas, the biological collection of Linnaeus was a steal. At least, King Gustavus III of Sweden thought so. Gustavus had been touring in Venice and France, and on his return to Sweden was incensed that the collection of Linnaeus had been sold to an outsider. The King even dispatched a ship to intercept the collection on its way to England, a chase immortalized in an etching by royal artist John Russel. But it was too late: by the end of October the collection was safely in store in a British customs house.
When his friend and colleague the Bishop of Carlisle, Rev. Samuel Goodenough, heard of Smith’s purchase, he wrote: “Your noble purchase of the Linnaean Cabinet most decidedly sets Britain above all other nations in the Botanical Empire; and it were much to be wished that the studies of individuals with respect to the science at large would become so animated, that she might be induced to fix her seat among us.” His words were an accurate assessment of the importance of possibly the greatest collection of natural history in the world at that time. With the collection as its cornerstone, Smith founded the Linnean Society, which is still the foremost society of taxonomists in the world. Smith’s personal contribution was impressive. He described numerous new plants from Britain, Greece, America and around the world, as well as insects and lichens.
Smith was later also elected to the Royal Society “without a single black ball,” and had the honour of instructing the queen (Charlotte, wife of George III) and the royal princesses – although Smith’s ‘warm admiration’ for Rousseau (whose ideas may have influenced the French Revolution) “scandalized her Majesty too irrecoverably, and he was dismissed from this occupation.” It is not known whether Smith shared Rousseau’s politics – he probably admired the French philosopher’s work in other fields. Despite the scandal of his dismissal, Smith was knighted in 1814.
When Samuel Goodenough heard that Smith was leaving Soho Square to return to Norfolk, he immediately rode over to try and prevail upon him to stay in London. Goodenough was too late – Smith had already packed and gone. As Goodenough wrote to Smith: “Directly I began grieving for you and the Linnaean Society. At the distance of Norwich you will be quite buried alive.” But as Lady Smith commented in her collection of her husband’s letters, “In the city of Norwich he found himself among those who knew and esteemed him.”
The Linnaean collection came to Norwich with Smith, where it resided for the next 30 years until Smith’s death in 1828, when Lady Smith sold it to the Linnean Society for £3150, a purchase that left the society in debt for many years. More than 200 years after its purchase, the Linnaean collection is still a vital resource for modern taxonomists.
It is arguable that no greater scientist has his home in Norfolk. But what is Smith’s legacy? There is a brass plaque in St. Peter Mancroft dedicated to him and his wife; his house (29 Surrey Street) has a small plaque informing passers-by that he lived there. And that is all. Not for Smith the immortality of bronze that Sir Thomas Browne enjoys. A fascinating man, a real Norfolk hero and a vital contributor to British science, Sir James Edward Smith deserves to be remembered.
“He found the science of botany, when he approached it, locked up in a dead language; -he set it free by transfusing it into his own. He found it a severe study, fitted only for the recluse; -he left it of easy acquisition to all. In the hands of his predecessors, with the exception of his immortal master, it was dry, technical and scholastic; -in his, it was adorned with grace and elegance, and might attract the poet as well as the philosopher.” - from Obituary in Philosophical Magazine, May 1828.