William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), theologian and Semitic scholar, was born at New Farm, Keig, in the Vale of Alford, Aberdeenshire, and educated at home by his father. He was elevated to a bursary at Aberdeen University in November 1861. In November 1866 he entered New College, the theological hall of the free church in Edinburgh. In May 1870 he was chosen for the chair of oriental languages and exegesis of the Old Testament in the Free Church College of Aberdeen, and in 1875 he was appointed a member of the Old Testament revision committee.
When, in 1870, arrangements were made for the issue of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Smith was invited to contribute on subjects bearing upon biblical criticism, and especially on that of the Old Testament. Smith's articles, 'Angel', in vol. ii of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and 'Bible' in vol. iii, both appeared in 1875, and attracted hostility from men of influence in the free church. A committee was appointed by the assembly of 1876 to investigate the articles, and its 1877 report was so hostile that Smith found it necessary to demand a formal trial by 'libel' (indictment) for his alleged heresies and errors. The proceedings that followed were protracted and involved. As a result, Smith practically ceased to be an acting professor in 1878. Following a vote of want of confidence, Smith was removed summarily from his chair in June 1881.
Immediately after his dismissal Smith accepted an invitation to become editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he consequently transferred his residence from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. In 1883 he was appointed to the position of Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge. He settled in the city for the rest of his life, first as a guest of Trinity College, and from October 1885, on his election to a fellowship, at Christ's. He held the Lord Almoner's Professorship until December 1886, when he was elected to the chief librarianship of the university. In 1889 he exchanged this for the Adams Professorship of Arabic.
Presented by M. Chrystal, 1954.