John Smith

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Professor John Smith, C.M.G., M.L.C. (1821 - October 12, 1885) was one of the Founding Chancellors of The University of Sydney. He was also an exceptionally talented amateur photographer, one of the first in Australia, and his photographs have historical significance in the development of the visual arts in this country. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1882 and received a couple of notes from one of the Masters of Wisdom.

Biographical information

John Smith was born near Aberdeen in Scotland in 1821, the son of a blacksmith. He studied at Marischal College, one of the two constituent colleges of the University of Aberdeen, and gained his MA in 1843 and his MD in 1844. He voyaged to Australia in 1847 for health reasons, acting as a ship’s surgeon.

In 1852 Smith was appointed foundation Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics at the University of Sydney, being the first Professor of Chemistry in Australia. In 1856 he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and became a Fellow of Senate in 1861.

He married Mary (Minnie) Macleod (a Spiritualist) in England in 1872, and had an adopted daughter.

Prof. Smith died aged 64 on October 12, 1885, according to the record, ‘of phthisis’ and was laid to rest in Waverley Cemetery, his obituary appearing in The Sydney Mail.[1]

Involvement in Theosophy

Prof. Smith arrived in Bombay on January 13, 1882, with a letter of introduction to the Founders from Emma H. Britten. He stayed for some days at the Crow's Nest, Bombay, and on February 1, after lunch, a letter from Master M. was precipitated saying "work for us in Australia, and we will not prove ungrateful, but will prove to you our actual existence, and thank you".[2] It was published as Letter 81 in Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom Second Series.

In 1883, "wishing to get, if possible, additional evidence of the command over the forces of nature possessed by the adepts or brothers who co-operate with Madame Blavatsky" he sent H.P.B. a letter with a brief note to the Masters that his wife had folded and stitched so that it could not be read without opening it. Mme. Blavatsky sent him a reply saying that "the Brothers" did not like to comply with tests, and asked him not to be angry with them on that account. However, he did get a reply. Prof. Smith wrote in The Harbinger of Light:

Following this last remark there was a sarcastic sentence written in red ink, in the same hand as the letter I got last year, to the effect that this was very kind and considerate advice. Inside Madame Blavatsky’s letter was a smaller one addressed to me in red ink. The envelope was so curiously folded and gummed that I could find no proper opening, and I had to cut it with a knife. Inside this envelope was the note I had sent to the Brother, absolutely intact. I examined it with great care, using magnifying glasses, and I got some ladies (including my wife who had sewn it up) to examine it, and we all came to the conclusion that the sewing had not been disturbed, nor the paper tampered with in any way. I then slit open the paper along one side and extracted a piece of blue Chinese paper, about six inches by five, folded three times. The paper had a faint picture on it of the nature of a watermark, and some writing in red ink round the margin, beginning thus:—
"Your ladies, I see, are unbelievers, and they are better needle-women than our Hindu and Tibetan lasses", with a few words more, having reference apparently to the letter I got from the same writer in India. I say the "same writer" because the handwriting and signature were identical.[3]

The article "Some Scientific Questions Answered" was written by a chela (possibly Mme. Blavatsky) after receiving a letter from the Professor, "one of our most eminent Australasian Fellows, asking some questions in science of such importance that the replies are, with permission, copied for the edification of our readers".[4]

There are no records of any work he did for Theosophy in Australia in the following few years before his death in 1885.

Online resources




  1. The Hon. John Smith at University of Sydney
  2. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom Second Series No. 77 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1977), 153.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 122-123.
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 123.