WILLIAM SMALL, 13th October 1734 - 25th February 1775. Doctor of Medicine, Master
of Arts, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the College of William and Mary.
William Small was born at Carmyllie, a rural community between Arbroath and Forfar,
on 13th October 1734, the son of a Presbyterian Minister James Small, and his wife
Lillias, nèe Scott. He attended Dundee Grammar School and then, later, Marischal
College, Aberdeen from which he graduated as Master of Arts in 1755.
In 1758 he was appointed as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the College of William
and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the second College to be established in the American
colonies. The leading light in the foundation of the College was James Blair, died
1743, who had also been educated at Marischal College. Small is credited with reform
and improvements to the curriculum and to the standards of education at William and
Mary, which impressed one of his students, Thomas Jefferson, who enrolled in 1760
at the age of 16, and later wrote that Small was ‘a man profound in most of the useful
branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly
manners, and a large and liberal mind…from his conversation I got my first views
of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.’
Small also practised as a physician during this period.
By 1764 Small had had enough of Virginia, partly the politicking of the College community,
but principally the weather, which he found to be a terrible trial. Possibly the
victim of malaria, he returned to England on a mission to buy scientific instruments
for the College but, somehow, never returned. He set up house in the Charing Cross
area of London, not far from Benjamin Franklin, whom he got to know. In January 1765,
Franklin took Small to a meeting of the Royal Society, and introduced him to his
friends and acquaintances. Through these connections, the chance came to move to
a medical practice in Birmingham, which he did in 1765, together with a new MD arranged
for him by his old patron from Marischal, Dr John Gregory
As well as his new degree, Small also carried to the Midlands a letter of introduction
from Franklin to Matthew Boulton, and his manner and affability soon earned him a
place as Boulton’s doctor, confidant, and sometime secretary. James Keir, another
Lunatick, was to write of him that to ‘his extensive, various and accurate knowledge’
was added ‘engaging manners, a most exact conduct, a liberality of sentiment, and
an enlightened humanity’ characteristics which, with an interest in mechanics, chemistry
and mathematics, qualified him for membership of the Lunar Society.
Small was open to ideas and, being entirely non-commercial, offered no threat to
those members of the Lunar Society who followed the entrepreneurial path. This offered
him the chance to be the facilitator, moderator and encourager of the group, and
it was a severe loss when, on 25th February 1775, William Small died after recurring
ill health - quite possibly the legacy of his time in Virginia. There can be no doubt
that at the age of 41, Small had not achieved all of which he was capable, and the
tributes paid by the other Lunaticks reflected their sense of loss.
William Small is buried in St Philip’s Churchyard, Birmingham.