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Biographical entry Smith, John William (1864 - 1926)

MRCS July 19th 1886; FRCS June 12th 1890; MB CM Edin (1st Class Honours) 1886; DL for Lancashire.

13 August 1864
13 April 1926
Carnforth, Yorkshire
General surgeon


Born at Lancaster on Aug 13th, 1864, the eldest son of Thomas Davidson Smith, whose family had been settled in the district for centuries. He received his early education at the Friends' School and at the ancient Royal Grammar School, Lancaster, where he had a good grounding in the classics, for which he retained a love throughout life. He preferred to become a student of medicine instead of following the paternal business, and in 1880 entered the University of Edinburgh.

Many of his fellow-townsmen, including Sir William Turner (qv), who was also educated at the Grammar School, were Edinburgh medical graduates. Naturally enough Smith attracted the attention of Turner, who appointed him one of his Junior Demonstrators of Anatomy.

After graduation in 1886 he became Resident House Surgeon to John Duncan in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. This fortunate appointment profoundly influenced his future career. Duncan was a remarkable man, and an illustration of the dictum of the late Sir William Dalby, given in his shrewd and witty Dr Chesterfield's Letters to his Son, that the largest practices and widest influences are not necessarily in the hands of those men who are most in the public eye. During his distinguished Edinburgh career Smith was elected President of the Royal Medical Society. He studied for a few months in Vienna and in Berne, and in 1889 became Junior Demonstrator of Anatomy at the Victoria University, Manchester, under Professor A H Young (qv), himself an old pupil of Sir William Turner. This post he held for two years, during which he published several papers on human and comparative anatomy.

In 1891 he was elected Resident Surgical Officer to the Manchester Royal Infirmary, thus following the old-time tradition of the training for the practice of surgery - that a surgeon should first, and above all things, be an anatomist.

In 1894 Smith began private surgical practice, and held some junior non resident appointments on the staff of the Infirmary, such as that of Junior Anaesthetist. He became interested about this time in the medical services of the Army, the Volunteer Army Medical Service Corps or Bearer Company being then the sole outlet for the energies of a civilian. He became an enthusiastic volunteer officer in this corps, and in the dark period of the South African War went out early in 1900 in command of the first detachment of 72 men who had volunteered for ambulance service. On arrival he was separated from his men and was detailed for service at Bloemfontein, where he was put in charge of the Surgical Division of No 9 General Hospital, South African Field Force, and was in that post for six months.

He had left papers behind him in charge of a friend, which the latter was to present in case a vacancy occurred on the honorary staff of the Manchester Infirmary. A vacancy duly occurred, but the friend forgot to hand in Smith's application. Another man was elected, but luckily there was a fresh vacancy within a year, when in 1901 Smith was elected Assistant Surgeon, and became full Surgeon in 1910. After the war his interest continued in the Volunteer Bearer Company, and in 1908, on the formation of the Territorial Force, he was given a commission as Major in the new RAMC (TF). He commanded a Field Ambulance Company and rarely missed a camp. He succeeded G A Wright (qv) in command of the 2nd Western General Military Hospital, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel RAMC (T).

It thus fell to his lot, in conjunction with F A Westmacott, to mobilize the hospital early in August, 1914. The hospital was originally equipped and designed to comprise 500 beds under one roof, and there was the nucleus of a trained military staff of officers and orderlies. Except that all contracts for equipment had long been made out and placed and a building earmarked for the hospital, everything else had to be done de novo. A large school in the centre of the town near the Southern Railway centre, with a smaller one a few hundred yards distant, were taken over and rapidly transformed into hospitals. At a very early date patients were being admitted, first from training centres in the district, then direct from the front. The accommodation was rapidly extended again and again. The extension went on almost continuously until about 1917, by which time the original base hospital of 500 beds in two buildings, with a few odd auxiliary hospitals, had increased to a base hospital with 5000 to 6000 beds, and some 120 auxiliary hospitals, making a total all told of upwards of 20,000 beds. Smith remained in command till late in 1915, when he began to devote himself wholly to work as head of the Surgical Department of the Hospital. He was made Brevet Colonel in 1917 - an honour granted to many men engaged in similar military medical work at that time - and later was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Lancaster in recognition of his services.

He continued in practice till 1922, when he retired owing to failing health. He had been Professor of Systematic Surgery in the Victoria University since 1911, and was Emeritus Professor at the time of his death.

He was a skilful surgeon, his judgement and knowledge of human nature being appreciated by all. He possessed shrewd common sense, and expressed his views clearly in matters of policy connected with the Medical School. Much interested in medico-legal cases, he was often a witness on behalf of the Corporation Tramways Committee, to which he was Consulting Surgeon, and was for some years Medical Referee in the County Court.

He lived at Richmond Road House, Ingleton, Carnforth, Yorks, after his retirement in 1922, died there on April 13th, 1926, and was buried at Tatham Church, Wennington, on April 16th. He married in 1910 the daughter of Henry James Mason, who survived him, with two children, a son and a daughter.


"Anatomy of Spheniscus Demersus."- Studies in Anatomy from the Anatomical Department, Owens College, 1891.
"Muscular Anomalies in Human Anatomy."-Ibid.
"Six Months with a Military Hospital (South African Field Force)."- Manch Med Chron, 1901.
"Enteroptosis." - Ibid, 1913.
"Operative Treatment of Carcinoma Recti." - Ibid 1911.
"Atony and Prolapse of Large Intestine." - Ibid, 1920.
"Surgical Anatomy of the Rectum." - Jour Anat and Physiol, 1913, xlvii, 350.
"Excision of the Rectum for Carcinoma; a Record of 34 Cases, 1904-10." - Brit Med Jour, 1911, I, 366.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1926, i, 886. Brit Med Jour, 1926, i, 766. Information kindly given by Mrs Smith and Dr Arthur Sellers].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England