Doctor J. Lawrence Smith
If you go into Cave Hill Cemetery and turn to the left, you will find in the very front row a monument to the Honorable James Guthrie of this city, who was Secretary of the Treasury to President Pierce, president of the first constitutional convention of Kentucky as well as of the L. and N. Railroad and of the University of Louisville. This gentleman had three gifted daughters, one of whom married Dr. J Lawrence Smith. The Smiths lie buried immediately behind the Guthrie monument, under a large stone, which carries a double medallion of their overlapping profiles. Above is the following inscription:
SARAH JULIA SMITH J. LAWRENCE SMITH
J. Lawrence Smith was born in Charlestown, South Carolina, December 17, 1818. The biographical sketches compiled at the time of his death contain no reference to his origin beyond the fact that his father was a merchant or sufficient fortune to provide the best private instructors. Lawrence Smith at the age of four years could perform difficult addition and multiplication. He was a student of algebra at the age of nine, and of calculus at the age of thirteen—therefore a typical infant prodigy.
After studying at Charlestown College, where he specialized in mathematics, chemistry, and natural philosophy, he took up engineering at the University of Virginia, and on graduation became an assistant in the construction of a proposed railroad from Cincinnati to Charles town. His bent, however, was more for chemistry, and he soon changed to medicine, graduation in 1829 after three years of study at the medical college of the state of South Carolina. His graduation thesis, entitled “ The Compound Nature of Nitrogen,” received the prize, a silver goblet.
His associated himself in the practice of medicine for a short time with two prominent local physicians. While driving with one of these, Doctor Smith had a miraculous escape from loss of life and limb, for when thrown out of the vehicle, his leg was caught in the fifth wheel, and only the shock of collision with a tree released him.
Doctor Smith’s foreign studies began about 1840 in Paris, where he studied chemistry with Dumas and toxicology with Orfila. He assisted the latter in the famous criminal case of Madame La Farge, who was poisoned with arsenic. In Doctor Smith’s paper “ On The Means of Detecting Arsenic in the Animal Body and of Counteracting Its Effects,” he does not hesitate to expose the errors of the distinguished Orfila.
Physics, mineralogy, and geology all claimed his attention at this time, the summers he was accustomed to spend in Germany, where he is said to have met Liebig by accident in Gieseen. He became a devoted follower of Liebig, who introduced him to the problem of chemistry of spermaceti. This fat-like substance, as you well know, is found chiefly in a large skull cavity of the whale. Doctor Smith was the first to show that spermaceti is not a true fact, but a wax-like substance, containing but one hydroxyl group in the molecule, instead of three. Cholesterol was also at that time supposed by all physiologies to be a fat, but Smith’s researches placed this likewise in the class of waxes, and his publications on these important substances represent the first contributions to organic chemistry in America.
On his return to Charlestown, Doctor Smith continued his chemical career as an assayer of gold bullion received by the state from Georgia, also of marl beds. In 1846, in association with Doctor Sinclair, he inaugurated the Charleston Medical and Surgical Journal. All this time he was engaged to some extent in practice and in the teaching of toxicology at the medical college.
His studies in agricultural chemistry lead to a reputation as an authority on the growth of cotton, and for this reason Doctor Smith was sent in 1847 by President Buchanan in response to a call from the Sultan of Turkey for scientific aid in introducing American methods in the culture of cotton. On arrival in Turkey, he found established a plan for cotton culture which he was unable to endorse, and was obliged to hand in his resignation at once. The sultan, however, in recognition of his abilities, kept him in Turkey for a number of years a consulting engineer. Smith assisted in the development of coalmines, as well as the sources for chromium and for emery. He was the first to discover the latter mineral in Turkey, thereby relieving the world from an obnoxious monopoly in this material, the only source having been the Island of Naxos. Smith’s knowledge of this subject lead to the discovery of valuable sources of emery and corundum in Massachusetts and North Carolina. Doctor Smith discovered a number of New Minerals, one of which he named medijite, after the Sultan Abdul-Medjid, and another liebigite, after his renowned chemical friend. Doctor Smith was useful to the Turks in various ways. He installed the first telegraph line in that country, connection the Sultan’s palace with the Bosphorus. He persuaded the Sultan to send a decoration to Professor S. F. B. Morse for his invention of the telegraph. He derived much amusement form the astonishment of the Turks upon his installation of an oxycalcium light in the dome of the Mosque at Constantinople.