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Biographical entry Smee, Alfred (1818 - 1877)

MRCS April 24th 1840; FRCS Dec 13th 1855; FRS June 1841.

18 June 1818
11 January 1877
General surgeon


Born at Camberwell on June 18th, 1818, the second son of William Smee, accountant-general to the Bank of England. He entered St Paul's School, then situated in St Paul's Churchyard, on Nov 7th, 1829, and became a student at King's College, London, in October, 1834. Here he won the Silver Medal and prize for chemistry in 1836 and the Silver Medals for anatomy and physiology in 1837. He afterwards entered St Bartholomew's Hospital, where he dressed for William Lawrence and obtained the prize in surgery. He lived the greater part of his student life in the Bank of England, where his father had an official residence, and it was here that he carried out the work on chemistry and electrometallurgy which afterwards made him famous.

He practised as a surgeon in Finsbury Circus, devoting himself more especially to the treatment of diseases of the eye, but was always more occupied in the solution of chemical problems and in the study of electrical science. Smee's battery of zinc and silver in sulphuric acid was the outcome of this work; it was largely employed for trade purposes and gained the Isis Gold Medal at the Society of Arts.

In January, 1841, he was appointed Surgeon to the Bank of England, a post specially created for him by the Court of Directors upon the recommendation of Sir Astley Cooper, who thought the Bank could turn his scientific abilities to good account.

In 1842 he invented a durable writing-ink, and in 1854, with Mr Hensman, the engineer, and Mr Coe, the superintendent of printing at the Bank, he perfected a system of printing the cheques and notes. Certain modifications were introduced into the manufacture of the notes to render it impossible any longer to duplicate them by horizontal splitting. His communication on "New Bank of England Notes and the Substitution of Surface Printing from Electrotypes for Copperplate Printing" was read before the Society of Arts in 1854.

Smee was elected FRS in June, 1841, and in 1842 he was appointed Surgeon to the Royal General Dispensary in Aldersgate Street. He also lectured on surgery at the Aldersgate Street School of Medicine and was Surgeon to the Central London Ophthalmic Institution. He was much occupied with a work, Elements of Electro-biology, which appeared in 1849 (8vo, London) and was republished in a more popular form in 1850 under the title, Instinct and Reason. It was a pioneer excursion into the territory of electrical physiology.

Smee took a great interest in the welfare of the London Institutions, and in 1854 was instrumental in establishing a system of educational lectures which proved attractive and were of great value. He was one of the founders of the Gresham Life Assurance Society and of the Accident Insurance Company.

He devoted himself to horticulture in later life and maintained an experimental garden at Wallington in Surrey. The results were published in a magnificent work, My Garden: Its Plan and Culture (1872), which is written somewhat upon the lines of White's Selborne. A second edition which appeared in the same year is illustrated with thirteen hundred cuts.

Smee contested Rochester in the Conservative interest in 1865, 1868, and 1874, but each time without success. He married Miss Hutchinson on June 2nd, 1840, and by her had issue, a son, Alfred Hutchinson, who was a Fellow of the Chemical Society, and two daughters, one of whom married William Odling, FRS, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Oxford. Smee died of diabetes at 7 Finsbury Square, EC, on Jan 11th, 1877, and was buried at St Mary's Church, Beddington, Surrey.

Had Smee lived a few years later he would have become a distinguished electrical engineer. His chief achievement dealt with electro-metallurgy, including the art of electrotyping. His medical work was subordinated to other and, as it proved, more important issues, yet even here his acumen enabled him to carry out improvements in the details of everyday practice. He invented, while yet a student, that method of making splints from plastic materials, known as 'gum and chalk', which was superseded by 'Croft's splints' (see Croft John), and he was quick to turn to account the physical properties of gutta-percha. He also employed electrical means to detect the presence of needles impacted in different parts of the human body. There is a portrait of him in the College Collection.


Elements of Electro-metallurgy, 8vo, London, 1840. A valuable work dealing with the laws regulating the reduction of metals in different states as well as a description of the processes of platinating and palladiating, so that reliefs and intaglios in gold can readily be obtained. Smee was also the first to discover a method of making perfect reverses in plaster by rendering the plaster non-absorbent. The second edition was published in 1843, the third in 1851, and it was translated into Welsh, 12mo, 1852.
On the Detection of Needles . . . Impacted in the Human Body, 8vo, London, 1845.
Vision in Health and Disease, 8vo, London, 1847 ; 2nd ed., 1854.
A Sheet of Instructions as to the Proper Treatment of Accidents and Emergencies, 12mo, New York, 1850 ; 10th ed., London, undated. Translated into French, 12mo, Paris, 1872, and into German, 8vo, Berlin, undated.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England