William Smith was born in 1818 in Kent, England, the eldest son of a wood trader. After the death of his father, he worked to support his mother and siblings. He had no formal education beyond the age of eight. Despite these humble beginnings, at the age of 88, Smith donated close to half a million dollars to found the college that bears his name. When Smith made his gift in 1906, it was larger that the entire accumulated endowment of Hobart’s existence and, in today’s market, would equal about $12 million dollars.
So how did a man born into poverty and with little education accumulate the resources and acquire the proclivity to create a college dedicated, at his request, to educating women?
Smith came to the United States from England in 1843 at the age of 25. After working for a Geneva nurseryman, he and his two brothers started their own nursery raising and selling ornamental plants. Smith was, by all accounts, a shrewd businessman, rather private and austere. He was known as a man of few words who was unafraid of hard labor. To stay ahead of the competition, he studied plant breeding which led to an interest in the natural sciences, in particular biology and astronomy. Over the years, Smith’s reading grew to include philosophy, religion and history. He had a large collection of natural history specimens in his home. The home itself, on Castle Street, was spacious and simple. Smith was devoted to his mother and after her death turned to Spiritualism for comfort. He never married.
It was through a natural talent with plants and a keen knowledge of business that Smith was able to accumulate a sizeable fortune. He believed that his wealth should be put to use in his adopted community of Geneva so he built the Smith Opera House and an observatory, helped organize the Standard Optical Company, and was director of the First National Bank of Geneva.
Smith deeply admired five women: his mother, a childhood sweetheart who died young, Elizabeth Smith Miller, her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller, and Anna Botsford Comstock. Little is now known about his mother and sweetheart other than that he was dedicated to both. In his later life and through a shared interest in spiritualism, he met the Millers. The elder Miller was the daughter of a congressman and abolitionist; her cousin was the famous suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Smith was a frequent guest in the Miller home and it was through them and their friends that Smith became active in the women’s movement. He often donated the use of the Opera House for suffragette lectures. The Millers introduced Smith to Comstock, head of the nature study department at Cornell University. Together, these three women guided Smith in his decision to create a college devoted to the education of women.
Smith seemed to take delight in the success of his charter class, commenting in a letter to Comstock that he had heard from the faculty that William Smith students were doing better than Hobart. He invited the charter class to his home and visited them on the Hill. When it was time to build a second residence for them, he donated the funds to create Elizabeth Smith Miller House. William Smith died on February 6, 1912 at the age of 93, four months shy of witnessing the graduation of his inaugural class.
Recent history has seen a plethora of famous men with the name “William Smith.” But despite their multiple accomplishments, for us there is only one William Smith. In case you’re interested, here are some others:
- philologist, physicist, archaeologist and Biblical critic
- Chief Justice of the Province of New York and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada
- champion Australian rugby league halfback
- British mariner and discoverer of the South Shetland Islands
- younger brother of the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Jr., and a leader in the Latter Day Saint movement
- actor best known for playing Adonis in the last episode of Batman
- founder of the Boys' Brigade
- Governor of Wisconsin (1878–1882)
- Governor of Alabama (1868–1870)
- Governor of Virginia (1846–1849, 1864–1865) and Confederate general
- Union Army general
- United States Attorney General (1981–1985)
- Medal of Honor winner in World War II
- Master of the SS Sauternes, English merchant seaman killed in World War II
- United States representative from Tennessee (1869–1870)
- United States representative from South Carolina (1789–1798)
- United States representative from Georgia (1875–1880)
- United States representative from North Carolina (1859–1860)
- United States representative from Pennsylvania (1903–1906)
- United States representative from Texas (1903–1916)
- United States representative from Alabama (1851–1856)
- United States representative from New York (1813–1816)