Robert William Innes Smith: GP and scholar

R.W. Innes SmithRobert William Innes Smith was born at North Bridge, Edinburgh on 26 December 1872. He was the oldest child of chemist and inventor William Smith (1848–1931), and his wife, Louisa Selina Campbell-Colquhoun (1847–1923). ‘Innes’ was originally a given name but Robert William incorporated it into his surname in 1895. He married Blythe Simpson Chalmers in 1896, and they went on to have four children.

Innes Smith attended Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh and studied at Edinburgh University from 1889, graduating MB CM in 1894. He qualified MRCS, LRCP, London, in 1900 and attained his MD degree at Edinburgh in 1902. It isn’t surprising that Innes Smith stayed in his home city to study medicine; the reputation of the teaching of medicine at Edinburgh University in the late nineteenth century would have been enticing for any prospective medical student. Contemporaneous teaching staff included renowned surgeons Joseph Bell, Harold Stiles, and Joseph Lister, asylum physician Thomas Clouston, chemist Alexander Crum Brown and cardiologist George Balfour.

Joseph Bell

Innes Smith spent the majority of his working life as a general practitioner, based in the Brightside district of Sheffield for thirty-three years. He also worked as surgeon to the steel firm Vickers Sons and Maxim Ltd. He became highly respected for both his clinical work and his scholarly activities.

He had a strong interest and expertise in medical history and art, and this is reflected in the numerous books and portraits which he collected over many years. He became skilled in recognising a face, and when visiting the Wellcome Museum in 1925 he pointed out a case of mistaken identity where a portrait of surgeon John Belchier had been wrongly labelled as Richard Mead for twenty years.

Innes Smith’s research led to articles published on lichen planus in the Lancet in 1897 and on gonorrhea synovitis in the British Medical Journal in 1902. His expertise in medical history was displayed in his monographs for the Edinburgh Medical Journal: on Dr James Mounsey of Rammerscales in 1926; and on Sir John Eliot Bart MD of Peebles and some of his friends in 1933.

In 1932 he published a work which clearly displayed his knowledge and interest in medical biography: English Speaking Students of Medicine at the University of Leyden. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1932.English-speaking students by Innes Smith
This work is an alphabetical list of about two thousand English-speaking medical students who were registered at Leiden University between 1575 and 1875. Many students from Britain travelled to study medicine at university abroad because the state of education at home was so poor. Each entry provides a student's name together with his date of inscription and brief biographical notes, along with the university, date and thesis title if the student ever graduated. The work was highly respected at the time of publication and remains an important reference book today.

In the introduction Innes-Smith stated that his book “began as an amusement during an illness.” He was suffering abdominal pain at that time but later he developed a terminal malignancy of the thoracic spine. He died at his home in Dore, on 28 April 1933, and was buried in Crookes cemetery, Sheffield.

On his death, part of his collection of books and portraits was acquired for the University and this is now held by Special Collections in the University of Sheffield Library. The material ranges from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. The majority of the books are medical biographies with an emphasis on Scottish medical men. The full listing can be seen in the Innes Smith Collection (PDF, 400KB). The portrait collection is made up of engravings, mezzotints, lithographs and photographs - the Innes Smith Medical Portrait collection can be seen in Digital Special Collections.

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