William Small by Tilly Kettle

William Small (1734-1775) was professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College of William and Mary. He was a mentor to Thomas Jefferson while Jefferson was a student at the school (1760-1762). Born and educated in Scotland at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, Small immersed himself in the Enlightenment philosophers, including Newton, Bacon, Locke, Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, and Adam Smith. He went to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1758 to join the faculty at William and Mary where he was the only non-clergyman on staff.

Small introduced the faculty to the Socratic method of questioning pupils as the primary means of teaching. Before this, students learned using memory lessons and recitations. Small, however, changed this approach: "In the lecture-discussion-demonstration method used by Small, professors provided formal lectures in the morning, followed by afternoon commentary, questions and answers, and possibly a series of experimental demonstrations."[1]

Small was a major influence on Jefferson's intellectual development. He inculcated in Jefferson a life-long appreciation of science, math, and the Enlightenment thinkers. Outside of the classroom, he helped introduce young Jefferson to Governor Francis Fauquier and local lawyer George Wythe.

Small left for England in 1764 to acquire scientific instruments for the college but never returned. While in England, he received a medical degree and became an adviser to Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Boulton, Small, and Erasmus Darwin helped establish the Birmingham Lunar Society, a learned society whose participants included Watt, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, William Withering (after Small's death), and others. Small died in Birmingham of what was called putrid or jail fever. It has been assumed that the fatal disease was malaria since Small had been in Virginia; indeed, it may have been malaria, but he was diagnosed by Erasmus Darwin, Alexander Small, and William Heberden.[2] Jefferson's last letter to Small was dated May 7, 1775.[3]

Primary Source References

1815 January 15. (Jefferson to L.H. Girardin). "Dr. Small was his [George Wythe's] bosom friend, and to me as a father. to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies while at College I am indebted for every thing. ... he first introduced into both schools rational & elevated courses of study, and from an extraordinary conjunction of eloquence & logic was enabled to communicate them to the students with great effect. he procured for me the patronage of mr Wythe, & both of them, the attentions of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who ever filled the chair of government here. ... at these dinners I have heard more good sense, more rational & philosophical conversations than in all my life besides. they were truly Attic societies."[4]

1821. (Autobiography). "It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed."[5]

- Bryan Craig, 8/27/08

Further Sources


  1. ^ Martin Richard Clagett, "William Small, Teacher, Mentor, Scientist" (PhD diss., Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003), 153.
  2. ^ Information provided by Martin R. Claggett, September 6, 2009.
  3. ^ Jefferson to Small, May 7, 1775, in PTJ, 1:165-66. Transcription available at Founders Online. Other letters between the two were probably destroyed in the Shadwell fire of 1770.
  4. ^ PTJ:RS, 8:200. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ Jefferson, Autobiography, January 6-July 29, 1821, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.