Dr. John Lawrence Smith (17 December 1818 – 12 October 1883) was an American medical doctor, chemist and mineralogist. Smith also studied civil engineering and geology, which led to his first job as a civil engineer. He did not like it, so he studied medicine. After graduating with a medical degree, he went to study in Europe. Smith was in Paris when the famous arsenic poisoning case of Madame LaFarge was prosecuted. He turned his attention to what is now modern forensic science. He did research poisoning dogs, burying them and digging them up at various intervals of time and detecting the poison in them. J. Lawrence Smith wrote an article, “On the means of detecting arsenic in the animal body and counter-reacting its effects.”
In 1844, he lectured at the Charleston Medical College. In 1864, he assisted in establishing the Medical and Surgical Journal of South Carolina. He favored chemical analysis more than medicine. In 1850, Smith invented the inverted microscope (light source at the top of the microscope). He examined various problems in agricultural chemistry, such as, the composition of soils. In 1852, Smith married Sarah Guthrie, whose father was the Treasury Secretary for the United States. Afterwards, J. Lawrence Smith became a professor of Chemistry at the University of Virginia. In 1854, Smith took over the chair and professor of medical chemistry and toxicology at the University of Louisville, replacing Benjamin Silliman Jr. who moved to Yale to take the position vacated by his father. Benjamin Silliman Senior founded The American Journal of Science – the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the United States. Silliman Sr. is tied to the Weston meteorite, but that is a story for another time. J. Lawrence Smith was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and President of the American Association for the Advancement in Science in 1872.
J. Lawrence Smith began collecting meteorites in the 1850s. He had a respectable collection. During the American civil war, but since he lived in Louisville, Kentucky a vulnerable place for this precious meteorite collection, he sold or gave away most of it.
In 1866, after the civil war, J. Lawrence Smith started to travel to Europe to collect, study and write about “aerolites” (meteorites). He published various papers on the subject including “On the peculiar concretions in meteoric iron” which was published in the American Journal of Sciences in 1883.
J. Lawrence Smith set out to obtain specimens from as many different falls as possible. At the time of his death, his collection was one of the largest private collections in the world, containing about 250 falls and had a total weight of approximately 2,500 pounds (1,134 kg). In October 1883, Harvard University purchased J. Lawrence Smith’s collection for $8,000 which anchored their meteorite collection. At the time, it gave Harvard the third largest meteorite collection in the world. Today, the Harvard collection has about 600 distinct meteorites and approximately 1,500 specimens ranging from less than 0.1 gram to 180 kg.
J. Lawrence Smith loved meteorites so much that his wife, Sarah Julia Smith, took the $8,000 proceeds from Harvard to establish research in the field of meteoritics by having the National Academy of Sciences award the J. Lawrence Smith medal to a worthy recipient. The J. Lawrence Smith medal is awarded every three years for research in meteoritics. It has been presented since 1888. The medal was originally solid gold, but not today, however, the modern gold medal comes with a cash prize of $50,000. The most recent recipient of the J. Lawrence Smith medal was received in 2021 by Dr. Meenakshi Wadhwa, Arizona State University (ASU), School Director and Foundation Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration. Other past notable recipients that caught my eye were George P. Merrill (Head Curator Geology and Minerals, including meteorites, at the Smithsonian Museum), Fred L. Whipple (Harvard Observatory and creator of the “dirty snowball” hypothesis of comets) and John T. Wasson (Emeritus Professor in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences).
I would like to thank my longtime friend Mike Bandli who has been generous with his time and educating me on historic meteorites and people. He shared many great stories about the meteorites with me. I would not be able to have written so many interesting articles on historic people and meteorites without his early guidance.
I would like to thank my longtime friend Dr. Arnaud Mignan who educated me on historic meteorites and people. Arnaud has tirelessly updated his historic collection of meteorites and written sublime articles about them on his website. He was planning to replace his website with an app or something similar.
I would like to thank my friend Frank Cressy for providing photos of his outstanding specimens from his extraordinary collection. We share a love of historic meteorites, people and the great stories behind them. Frank’s exceptional book, “From Weston to Creston: A Compendium of U.S. Witnessed Meteorite Falls 1807 to 2016” is on my must read meteorite book list.