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Robert Angus Smith

Abstract

A NOTHER of the men of the middle time has passed away. Early on Monday morning, the 12th inst., whilst Adolphe Wurtz lay dying at Paris, Angus Smith breathed his last at Glynwood, Colwyn Bay. Both men were of the same age, and both were pupils of the illustrious Liebig—students in the great chemical school of Giessen. Each, in a sense, was imbued with some one phase of the spirit of their many-sided master, but in a different manner: Wurtz spent his energies and won his greatest triumphs in the development of chemical theory, and in the elucidation of the structure of organic compounds; Smith had probably little knowledge of, and but little sympathy with, the theories of modern organic chemistry; and although possessed of his countrymen's love of metaphysics, and, as his writings show, capable of much abstract speculation, his conceptions of chemical constitution were probably, in the main, as mechanical as those of Dalton, whose disciple and chief interpreter he considered himself to be. His chief point of contact with Liebig lay in his recognition of the utilitarian side of his science: for upwards of forty years he laboured unceasingly to show how chemistry might minister to the material comfort and physical well-being of men—not in the manufacture of new compounds useful in the arts, or in the establishment of new industries,—but in raising the general standard of the health of communities by checking or counteracting the evils which have followed in the train of that enormous development of the manufacturing arts which is the boast of this century. Sweetness and light were fixed articles in Smith's creed. His love of fresh air, of pure water, of a green hillside was intense. “Where to, sir?” asked a cabdriver whom Smith had hailed on his way home, tired and longing for escape from beneath the dull, murky Manchester sky. “To the sun!” was the answer. And we are told that it was to the credit of that cabman that he did not take the old philosopher to some hostelry with the sign of Phœbus, but trundled him among the green lanes beyond the city's outskirts until it was time to turn the horse's head homewards. To keep the air in our towns fresh and wholesome, to restore the water of our streams to its pristine clearness, to preserve the freshness and verdure of the fields and woods, to sweeten the atmosphere of the crowded dwellings in cities,—this was the kind of work to which Smith dedicated his life, and at which he laboured to the very last. There have been greater chemists, no doubt; his name is not associated with any fundamental discovery in chemistry, and his attempts at theorising were not always very happy; but in his true vocation, as the chemist of sanitary science, Smith worked alone, and we have yet to find the man on whom his mantle has fallen.

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