What is the likelihood of finding information concerning J. Smith MD, the addressee on a Victorian cover of more than 100 years ago? Well the address of Sydney University certainly helped. The front of the cover bears two stamps, the first being the two pence lilac Robinson second contract horizontally laid paper (SG 69, Scott 47a) plus the four pence pale dull rose Robinson second contract vertically laid paper (SG 71, Scott 48), both rouletted 5.5 to 6.5. These stamps date the letter to June 1858 or later. The barred numeral “1” of Melbourne is of no additional help with the dating (Figure 1).
The reverse of the cover has a SHIP-LETTER/ A/ SP 9/ 1858/ =SYDNEY= postmark that shows the arrival date. This Ship Letter postmark Type ‘SL 9’ was in use from the 23.4.1858 until 22.11.1865 (Figure 2).
The Archives Department of Sydney University provided the definitive information, in the Centenary Book of the Faculty of Medicine 1984, pp. 38-41, which can be summarized as follows: The Hon. John Smith (1821-1885) CMG MA MD Hon LLD Aberdeen was born near Aberdeen Scotland, the son of a blacksmith. He studied at Marischal College, University of Aberdeen, gaining his MA in 1843 and MD in 1844. He voyaged to Australia in 1847 for health reasons, acting as the ship’s surgeon. In 1852 he was appointed Foundation Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics at the University of Sydney. In 1860 he took six months’ leave to update his scientific knowledge, but it is recorded that his lecture courses showed little improvement!
He drifted away from chemistry and physics and started to make his mark in public life. He pursued his long-standing interest in water purity and frequently acted as a Government advisor as to the siting of water reservoirs, and he chaired a Royal Commission on the water supply of Sydney. In 1874, he was appointed to the Legislative Council and often contributed to debates on health, medicine and education.
Smith was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1856 and became a Fellow of Senate in 1861. He had a negative role in the development of the Medical School and he had an underlying antipathy to medical practitioners, a hostility that was reciprocated. This hostility is documented in the N.S.W. Medical Gazette of 1875 which stated “he sneers at the system of lectures and book learning and makes observation, sense perception, and instinct, superior to mental discipline and the careful acquisition of knowledge”.
This interesting side-light turned up on just how modern Smith was: “Dr. Smith intends to give a short course of lectures (say nine or ten) with a view to explain some of the leading principles of chemical science. The chemical substances described will be chiefly those found in air and water. The lectures will be given on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon – to commence on Wednesday the 25th instant, and they will be open to ladies as well as gentlemen. The fee for the course is one guinea. Tickets may be obtained from the Registrar, at the University, between the hours of 9 o’clock A.M. and 3 o’clock P.M. May 16.”
John Smith was an accomplished photographer and some of his photographic plates were found during rebuilding at the University. The picture shows him standing (in a black top hat) besides the stonemasons, timing the exposure, during construction at the University (Figure 3).
Another photograph of John Smith shows him in his laboratory holding a bottle of distilled water (Figure 4).
He died in 1885 of ‘phthisis’ (tuberculosis). His name is commemorated in the University by a prize for first-year students of Chemistry, but he is virtually forgotten in the Faculty of which he was dean for 27 years. To-day, Smith’s most lasting memorial is a splendid collection of photographs of the University taken when its finest buildings were under construction. A collector of postal history covers can never predict what a little research will uncover about a personage of long ago with the common name of John Smith!
A version of this paper was published in the N.S.W. Philatelist, August 2000, Volume 22, Number 3, pages 37-39.