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William Smellie
by Henry Bryan Hall

William Smellie (born 1740 in Edinburgh, died 24 June 1795 in Edinburgh) was a Scottish encyclopedist, master printer, Fellow of the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and naturalist. He was friends with Robert Burns, whose assessment is engraved on Smellie's tombstone: "Here lies a man who did honour to human nature".[1] Burns also described him fondly in a letter as "that old Veteran in Genius, Wit and Bawdry".[2]

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 his own admission,[1] Smellie borrowed liberally from many authors of his day, such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson.[3] 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".[4] 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."[5] 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."[5] Despite its incompleteness and inaccuracies, Smellie's vivid prose and the easy navigation of the first edition led to strong demand for a second;[6] some prurient engravings by Andrew Bell (later censored by King George III) may also have contributed to the success of the first edition.[1] 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 Scot's Journal, which made him familiar with the editing and publication of a work in parts.[7] Smellie is also noted for his English translation of the famous Histoire Naturelle of the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. In 1779, Smellie was nominated to be the University of Edinburgh's Professor of Natural History; however, the post was awarded to Dr. John Walker, allegedly due to politics. 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 nineteenth 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.

Smellie was the son of a master builder and stonemason. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh. At the age of 12, he was apprenticed to a printer and rose to the rank of master printer.


  1. ^ a b c Banquet at Guildhall in the City of London, Tuesday 15 October 1968: Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica and the 25th Anniversary of the Honorable William Benton as its Chairman and Publisher. United Kingdom: Encyclop√¶dia Britannica International, Ltd.. 1968. 
  2. ^ The Letters of Robert Burns. Oxford. 1985. p. 10. ISBN 0-19-812321-3. 
  3. ^ Kister, KF (1994). Kister's Best Encyclopedias: A Comparative Guide to General and Specialized Encyclopedias (2nd ed. ed.). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press. ISBN 0-89774-744-5. 
  4. ^ Krapp, Philip; Balou, Patricia K. (1992). "Collier's Encyclopedia". Collier's Encyclopedia. 9. New York: Macmillan Educational Company. pp. p. 135. Library of Congress catalog number 91-61165. 
  5. ^ a b "Encyclopedias". Encyclop√¶dia Britannica (1st edition ed.). 1771. 
  6. ^ "Encyclopedias". Encyclop√¶dia Britannica (14th edition ed.). 1954. 
  7. ^ Wells, James M. (1968). The Circle of Knowledge: Encyclopaedias Past and Present. Chicago: The Newberry Library. Library of Congress catalog number 68-21708. 


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