Andrew Smith lived from 3 December 1797 to 12 August 1872. He was a doctor and naturalist best known for his study of the zoology of South Africa. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Andrew Smith was born in Hawick and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He gained his M.D. in 1819 and joined the army as a surgeon. In 1820 he was posted to the Cape Colony, caring for the British troops stationed there and, from 1822, for native residents as well.
Smith quickly gained a reputation for his ability to adapt to Southern African conditions, and to communicate and live with the native tribes such as the Bantu and Xhosa. In 1825 he was appointed the first Superintendent of the South African Museum of natural history in Cape Town. In 1828 Smith he travelled to Namaqualand to discover more about the lives of the Bushmen there. One result was his publication, in 1831, of a paper on the history and society of the Bushmen.
In 1833 Smith led an 18 month expedition into the little known areas of Basutoland, Kuruman, and Magaliesberg. This allowed the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mzilikazi, the Southern African king who ruled the Matabele kingdom, and the Cape Colony. In May 1836, Smith met the young Charles Darwin when the Beagle arrived at Cape Town. The two became friends and it was Charles Darwin who later sponsored Smith's Fellowship of the Royal Society.
In January 1837, Smith returned to Britain and began work on his five volume Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa, which appeared between 1838 and 1850. In 1844 he married his housekeeper Ellen Henderson. Meanwhile he was rising up the ranks of the Army Medical Services, becoming Director-General in 1853. A Commission of Inquiry cleared him of personal blame for the poor state of medical care of the army in the Crimean War from 1854-1856. He received a knighthood shortly before he resigned through ill health in 1858, and he died in 1872.