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James D. Small
David L. Craig
Copyright 2001 ©
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What would Dr. William Small's obituary have looked like? If written today, it would be an impressive eulogy on the powerful influence his life had on those great and enduring figures of his time, both American and British, who knew him personally. But it has taken many years after his death to fully assess that influence. The obituary below is a reflection, not of what was written, but what might have been written in 1775.

As a very young scholar from an obscure college in Scotland, Small became a teacher at William & Mary College in Virginia in 1758. Smallís love of mathematics and natural philosophy was transferred into the mind of a teenager from Virginia who, in two short years, learned the power of the analytical mind, philosophy as an art form, and was introduced to some of the leading political figures of the time. That teenager, Thomas Jefferson, ultimately translated that learning and experience into a document that has endured from its inception to the present day as one of the most important documents in the United States. He was so impressed with his teacher and mentor that his respect and fondness for Small endured for his entire life. Jefferson acknowledged that Small formed in him the basis of his beliefs, which guided him to become one of the leaders of the Revolution, writer of the Declaration of Independence and President of the United States.

But Dr. Small's influence on mankind did not end there. His association with Governor Francis Fauquier, George Wythe and Benjamin Franklin as close friends and associates in Virginia, and with James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and others in the Lunar Society he helped found in Birmingham upon his return to the British Isles, gives an indication of his powerful influence upon some of the greatest men of his time. Is it possible that Charles Darwin was influenced by the ideas of Small through his grandfather, Erasmus? One will never know, but the influence of Dr. Small was great, as attested by the fact that the Lunar Society did not survive long after his death. Apparently the members failed to find another associate of the caliber of Small to fill the void created in their membership by his demise. Small was said to be the glue that held together a group of disparate characters and temperaments.

That Thomas Jefferson would send Small six dozen bottles of Madeira from his own cellar indicates the affection and high regard he had toward his former professor during a time when his attention was on the imminent departure from British rule of the American Colonies. The effect on Jefferson when he later found out that his letter and wine arrived after the death of his friend can only be conjectured. But later references made by Jefferson indicate his continuing fondness for Dr William Small.

February 25th 1775

Dr. William Small of Aberdeen Scotland, dead at the age of 40

Dr. William Small died today and greatly saddened the Birmingham community with his passing. He had long been in poor health and knew there was no hope for his recovery. He was born in Carmyllie, Forfarshire, Scotland on October 13th 1734 to the late Reverend James Small, a graduate of St. Andrews University and formerly minister in Carmyllie, and the late Lillias Scott from Torthill, Scotland.

He studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen Scotland under Professor William Duncan and graduated as Master of Arts in 1755. In 1758 he sailed to the American Colony of Virginia and joined the faculty of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, teaching there for 6 years as a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. He also served in other capacities while there due to shortages of other educators. He returned to our land in 1764 and became a medical practitioner in Birmingham. He was granted an MD from Marischal College in 1765. He continued his work in a medical
partnership with Dr. John Ash. He was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham from 1765 until his death. This is a celebrated private group of intellectuals and scientists, whose membership includes James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, some of the more notable men of our time. His personal introduction of Watt and Boulton led to their engineering partnership and the commercial development of the steam engine.

William Small died in the care of Dr. Darwin, who heaped praise upon his fallen comrade "whose strength of reasoning, quickness of invention, learning in the discoveries of other men, and integrity of heart (which is worth them all), had no equal."

Thomas Jefferson, a student of Dr. Small while he was professor at William and Mary College, upon learning of his teacher's death, commented "Dr. Small was ..... to me as a father. To his enlightened and affectionate guidance of my studies while at college, I am indebted for everything.... He procured for me the patronage of Mr. Wythe, and both of them, the attentions of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who ever filled the chair of government here. They were inseparable friends, and at their frequent dinners with the governor, he admitted me always, to make a partie quarrae. At these dinners
I have heard more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversation than all my life besides."

"It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics. A man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me and made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed. "

Dr. Small, a bachelor, was preceded in death by a brother David who died in infancy, his father who passed away on January 3, 1771, and his mother who passed away just 3 weeks before him on February 4, 1775. He is survived by one unmarried sister, Anne, and two brothers, Reverend James Small, unmarried of Dundee, and Reverend Robert Small, also of Dundee, a widower with 4 small children.

Friends and family may call at his residence this evening. Burial will be in St. Philips Church Yard, Birmingham.


Thomas Jefferson Autobiography
Marischal College, Aberdeen Scotland Archives
William & Mary College, Williamsburg Va. Archives
The Lunar Society of Birmingham - A Social History Of Provincial Science And Industry In Eighteenth-Century England, Robert E Schofield, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1963
The Wedgwood Circle 1730-1897, Barbara & Hensleigh Wedgwood, Studio Vista, London, 1980
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Bible of Lillias Scott Small 1712

Authors. James D. Small, Surgoinsville TN and David L. Craig, Australia are genealogists of the Small family of America and Australia.

Want to get in touch with me? Email me! Jim Small

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