William Smellie, by Henry Bryan Hall
|Died||24 June 1795|
|Resting place||Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh|
|Education||Duddingston parish school|
High School, Edinburgh
|Alma mater||University of Edinburgh|
|Occupation||Printer, editor, naturalist, antiquary|
|Employer||Apprentice, Hamilton, Balfour & Neil, printers, 1752|
Substitute lecturer, botany, University of Edinburgh
|Known for||Editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica First Edition|
|Jean Robertson (m. 1763)|
|Parent(s)||Alexander Smellie, architect, Edinburgh|
William Smellie FRSE FSA Scot (1740-1795) was a Scottish printer who edited the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was also a naturalist and antiquary, who was joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, co-founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and a friend of Robert Burns.
He was born in The Pleasance, in south-east Edinburgh in 1740, the son of Alexander Smellie, architect and master builder, and of his wife, Jean Robertson. He was educated at Duddingston School then Edinburgh High School.
Smellie left school at 12 to years old to be apprenticed as a printer to Hamilton, Balfour & Neill in 1752. During this time he was promoted to the subeditorial position corrector of the press, and won his firm the Edinburgh Philosophical Society's prize for the most accurately printed edition of a Latin text.
On completion of his apprenticeship he joined the firm of Murray & Cochran as a corrector for the Scots Magazine. He spent three hours per day in the evenings studying at extramural classes at the University of Edinburgh. In 1760 he founded the Newtonian Club, a sub-section of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. He was also a joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
On 27 March 1763 he married Jean Robertson in London.
At the age of 28, Smellie was hired by Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell to edit the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, which appeared in 100 weekly instalments ("numbers") from December 1768 to 1771. It was a masterful composition although, by Smellie's own admission, he borrowed liberally from many authors of his day, such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. Nevertheless, the first edition of the Britannica contained gross inaccuracies and fanciful speculations; for example, it states that excess use of tobacco could cause neurodegeneration, "drying up the brain to a little black lump consisting of mere membranes".
Smellie strove to make Britannica as usable as possible, saying that "utility ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind".
Smellie entertained strong opinions; for example, he defines farriery as "the art of curing the diseases of horses. The practice of this useful art has been hitherto almost entirely confined to a set of men who are totally ignorant of anatomy, and the general principles of medicine."
Although possessed of wide knowledge, Smellie was not an expert in all matters; for example, his article on "Woman" has but four words: "the female of man." Despite its incompleteness and inaccuracies, Smellie's vivid prose and the easy navigation of the first edition led to strong demand for a second; some prurient engravings by Andrew Bell (later censored by King George III) may also have contributed to the success of the first edition.
Smellie did not participate in the second edition of the Britannica, because he objected to the inclusion of biographical articles in an encyclopedia dedicated to the arts and sciences.
At the time of his hiring, Smellie edited a weekly called the Scots Journal, which made him familiar with the editing and publication of a work in parts. He went on to print and edit the Edinburgh Weekly Journal as joint owner with William Auld, and was co-owner, editor, and contributor to the Edinburgh Magazine and Review. He printed and edited Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines by William Buchan in 1769. He also edited the first transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which were published in 1792.
In 1781 Smellie was made keeper and superintendent of the Edinburgh Museum of Natural History.
From 1782 he had William Creech as his business partner.
Smellie continued to publish a wide variety of works, including his two-volume Philosophy of Natural History, which became a set text at Harvard University in the 19th century, and at least two of the four-volume set of Thesaurus medicus: sive, disputationum, in Academia Edinensi, ad rem medicam pertinentium, a collegio instituto ad hoc usque tempus, delectu which reprinted Edinburgh medical theses of the 18th century.
His printing office stood at the foot of Anchor Close off the Royal Mile (on a site now on East Market Street) and his house was on Gosford's Close nearby. Gosford's Close was pulled down when the city built George IV Bridge in 1830.
He died in Edinburgh on 24 June 1795 and is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard just north of the Adam Mausoleum, south-west of the church.
He was well-acquainted with Robert Burns. Burns' assessment is engraved on Smellie's tombstone: "Here lies a man who did honour to human nature". Burns also described him fondly in a letter as "that old Veteran in Genius, Wit and Bawdry".