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Biographical entry Smith, Joseph Priestley (1845 - 1933)

MRCS 16 November 1871; FRCS by election 11 April 1901; MB BCh Birmingham 1901; Hon FRCSI 1907; Hon LLD Birmingham 1916.

29 October 1845
30 April 1933


Born at Edgbaston, Birmingham on 29 October 1845, the son of Brooke Smith. His father belonged to an old Unitarian family and the son was named after Joseph Priestley, the preacher and discoverer of oxygen, who was driven to the United States when the Birmingham mob burnt his house. Brooke Smith was an active member of the Birmingham Town Council and formed a friendship with Joseph Chamberlain, which was maintained throughout life by his son. Priestley Smith was apprenticed at the age of seventeen to a mechanical engineer, and the four years' training thus gained influenced his life's work in ophthalmology. He was educated at Sydenham College and entered Queen's Hospital in 1867, where he acted as dresser to Sampson Gamgee. Whilst still a student he volunteered for service during the Franco-German war in 1870. He was appointed dresser to a Red Cross Field Hospital at Bingen, and was afterwards placed in charge of the tent hospital at Am Th├╝rmchen, where he remained until the end of the war. He then returned to England and became a student for a short time at the London Hospital and acted as clinical assistant at Moorfields.

As soon as he had received the diploma of MRCS he was appointed house surgeon to the Birmingham and Midland Eye Hospital, where he stayed for two years, and in 1874 was elected ophthalmic surgeon to Queen's Hospital, Birmingham, a post he held until his retirement from practice in 1916. In 1895 he became lecturer in ophthalmology to the Faculty of Medicine in Birmingham, and in 1900 he succeeded J Vose Solomon in the higher post of professor. In 1916 he retired and was complimented by the University of Birmingham with the honorary degree of LLD and the title of emeritus professor of ophthalmology. He married a daughter of James Russell, MD, physician to the Birmingham General Hospital, who died before him. Priestley Smith died at 52 Frederick Road, Edgbaston, on 30 April 1933, full of years and greatly esteemed.

Priestley Smith was known throughout the world for his studies in glaucoma. He was an accomplished operator, the inventor of a perimeter and a tonometer; honest, no self-seeker, and modest to a degree. He excelled in mechanical aptitude, in an appreciation of mechanical principles, and in a determination not to theorize until he had founded his theories upon observed facts. He was an accomplished artist in watercolours, illustrated his lectures with drawings on the blackboard, was an excellent speaker, a good linguist, and a skilled musician. At the Royal College of Surgeons in 1878 he won the Jacksonian prize with an essay on Glaucoma, its causes, symptoms, pathology, and treatment. In 1889 he delivered an Erasmus Wilson lecture on The pathology of glaucoma. In 1881 he founded the Ophthalmic Review, of which he was co-editor until the 28th volume in 1909.

Many honours fell to him as of right. In 1888 he was called upon to open the discussion on glaucoma at Heidelberg; in 1890 he shared with W A Brailey the Middlemore prize given by the British Medical Association; and in 1892 he was president of the ophthalmological section at the annual meeting of the BMA. In 1898 he was Bowman lecturer and chose Converging strabismus as the subject. In 1901 he was elected honorary Fellow of the Royal and Imperial Society of Physicians of Vienna, a rare distinction. In 1904 he was presented with the Nettleship gold medal on the occasion of its first award. In 1905 he was president of the Ophthalmological Society, and in 1914-16 he acted as president of the ophthalmological section of the Royal Society of Medicine. In 1927 he received the Lucien Howe medal from the American Ophthalmological Society; it had been given previously to Professors Kohler, Fuchs, and Edward Jackson. Finally in 1932 he was given the Gullstrand gold medal of the Swedish Medical Society. A three-quarter length portrait by Harold Speed was painted in 1928. It is an excellent likeness, and hangs in the board room of the Queen's Hospital, Birmingham.

Glaucoma, its causes, symptoms, pathology, and treatment, Jacksonian prize essay. London, 1879.
On the pathology and treatment of glaucoma, Erasmus Wilson lecture. London, 1891. Growth of the crystalline lens. Trans Ophthal Soc UK 1883, 3, 79.
Primary glaucoma in relation to age. Ibid 1886, 6, 294.
Aetiology and educative treatment of convergent strabismus, Bowman lecture. Brit med J 1898, 2, 1.
Treatment of strabismus in young children. Int Ophthal Congr 9, Utrecht 1899, Trans, p 11.
The blood pressure in the eye, etc. Brit J Ophthal 1917, 1, 4 and 657. On tonometric values. Ibid 1919, 3, 293.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 2 May 1933 and 11 May, p 16e; Lancet, 1933, 1, 1039, with Speed's portrait; Brit med J 1933, 1, 850, with portrait, not Speed's, and p 898; Brit J Ophthal 1933, 17, 442, with a good reproduction of Speed's portrait; Queen's Med Mag 1933, 30, 129; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England