Smith, Robert William (1807–73), surgeon, was born 12 October 1807 in Dublin, son of George Smith, an Englishman, and Isabella Smith (née Allman), a member of a talented Anglo-Irish family. He studied at TCD, taking his BA (1828) and MA (1832), and at the RCSI. He was apprenticed to Richard Carmichael, medical reformer and founder of the Medical Association of Ireland. Smith became a licentiate of the College of Surgeons in 1832. He was appointed surgeon to the Richmond Hospital six years later. He received an MD from TCD in 1842 and became a fellow of the RCSI two years later. He became a member of the RIA in 1849. Smith lectured at the Richmond Hospital Medical School, a private medical school of the period, initially on forensic medicine and later on surgery.
Smith played a key role in establishing the Pathological Society of Dublin in 1838. Both he and the physician William Stokes (qv) were first joint secretaries. They were also married to sisters, Janet and Mary Black respectively. The aim of the society was to promote the study of pathology and encourage the diagnosis and treatment of diseases by relating pre-mortem symptoms and signs to post-mortem findings. The society brought surgeon, physician, and obstetrician together, encouraging a spirit of mutual cooperation and endeavour in the pursuit of knowledge. The members met every Saturday at 4 o'clock and pathological specimens were presented. The proceedings of the society, which were published in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, reveal the high standards of both clinical observation and pathological description achieved by its members. The first clinical meeting of the society took place on 10 November 1838, when the physician Robert Graves (qv) took the chair. Robert Smith was secretary of the Pathological Society from its establishment till his death in 1873, a period of thirty-five years.
Smith was an outstanding teacher, a gifted linguist, and a prolific writer on medical and surgical subjects. His knowledge of French and German allowed him to stay abreast with advances in medicine and surgery on the Continent. His first book, Treatise on fractures in the vicinity of joints (1847) – a substantial work of 314 pages with 200 fine illustrations – established his reputation and is one of the classics of surgical literature. It contains the first description of the wrist fracture later known as ‘Smith's fracture’ and also as the ‘reverse Colles’ fracture’, as the deformity is the opposite to that which occurs in a Colles’ fracture. Smith's fracture occurs just above the wrist joint, usually as a result of a fall on the back of the hand.
In 1847 the board of TCD decided to separate the chairs of anatomy and surgery in accordance with their policy of placing more emphasis on the teaching of surgery within the medical school. Smith was appointed to the chair of surgery and at the same time took up duties at Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital. In his later years he abandoned private practice in order to concentrate his energies on his students and on research. A further book, Treatise on the pathology, diagnosis and treatment of neuroma (1849), illustrated with magnificent plates, describes the pathological changes in several cases of neurofibromatosis, anticipating the work of von Recklinghausen of Strasbourg on the same subject by thirty-three years. When the British Medical Association met in Dublin in August 1867, Smith was invited to give one of the keynote addresses. He was a fellow of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London and was also an honorary member of the Medical Society of Paris. William Stokes was a great admirer of Smith's contribution to Irish medicine and dedicated his famous book The diseases of the heart and aorta to him. Smith was elected vice-president of the RCSI, and he died 28 October 1873 while holding this office. A portrait, and a marble bust by James Cahill (d. 1890), are in the RCSI, and a drawing of Smith manipulating a fracture is in the school of anatomy, TCD.