William Smith (1818 – 1912) was an entrepreneur, self-taught scientist, patron of the arts and sciences, and partly closeted freethinker. Late in his life Smith befriended Elizabeth Smith Miller and others in her suffragist circles. Miller and her fellow activists persuaded him to endow a nondenominational women’s college. Founded in 1906 as the William Smith College for Women, the institution still thrives today; its “co-ordinate” structure is unique in America higher education.
Smith was born into poverty in Kent, England. The family emigrated to Geneva, New York, in 1843, when William was 25. Geneva was then the center of a flourishing nursery industry that sold graft stock to grape growers and fruit farmers and ornamental plants to the wealthy. After learning the trade, in 1846 the brothers William, Thomas, and Edward Smith founded their own nursery company. It thrived, partly because of William’s self-directed studies of plant breeding. This led him to read widely in biology and then in other sciences, especially astronomy, even as his business success made him a millionaire. A private man whose childhood sweetheart had died young, Smith never married.
Originally an Anglican, Smith broke from denominational Christianity in adulthood. In time he became an open spiritualist, but it may not have been widely known in Geneva that he eventually broke with traditional religion altogether. In 1885, Rochester minister-turned-freethought-evangelist Charles B. Reynolds published an appeal for funds in a national freethought newspaper, The Truth Seeker. Reynolds sought $500 so he could buy a 50-foot “Liberal tent” and offer freethought lectures in rural locations lacking lecture halls. Smith responded, sending $300, the largest single gift. This indicates that Smith subscribed to The Truth Seeker, a paper read almost exclusively by atheists and other committed freethinkers. The paper acknowledged the gift in a brief notice, but it is unlikely that many Genevans saw it and discovered how unconventional Smith’s religious views had become. (Reynolds’s tent was short-lived; in 1886 New Jersey hooligans burned it and Reynolds was arrested for blasphemy. At his May 1887 trial, Reynolds was defended by none other than Robert Green Ingersoll.)
Smith became an active philanthropist. To enhance Geneva’s scientific stature, in 1888 he built a brick house and a small but capable astronomical observatory next to his own home in Geneva, recruiting astronomer William R. Brooks to reside there and direct the observatory. Brooks discovered numerous comets from the Geneva observatory. (The observatory is now privately owned and has been restored.) In 1894 Smith constructed a 3-1/2 story brick and stone opera house in downtown Geneva, giving his community a high quality performing arts facility that still anchors the community today.
Smith was well-known among wealthy Genevans. Among those was Elizabeth Smith Miller, daughter of liberal philanthropist Gerrit Smith and a leading activist for woman suffrage. Smith was a frequent guest at Lochland, the lakeside mansion where Miller conducted an ongoing salon for reformers and intellectuals. Smith became close friends with Miller, her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller, and educator-conservationist Anna Botsford Comstock. They recruited Smith to the woman suffrage cause; on multiple occasions he donated use of his opera house for suffrage meetings. As the twentieth century dawned, Smith, in his eighties, contemplated making a very large gift to found a spiritualist college. Miller and her companions persuaded him to endow a women’s college instead at Geneva. Inspired by the example of Cornell University (where Comstock was on the faculty), William Smith College for Women would be nondenominational and would offer women a fully-rounded liberal arts education, unusual for women’s institutions at the time.
In 1906 Smith donated approximately $500,000 (about $12 million today) to create the new college, which would share land and some facilities with the existing Hobart College in an unusual “co-ordinate” relationship. (The two institutions now share a campus and operate as Hobart and William Smith Colleges, but continue to confer degrees as separate entities, an arrangement seen nowhere else in American higher education.)
In 1907 the new college’s first building was constructed: Smith Hall of Science, a classroom building. (Lavishly restored in 1992, Smith Hall now houses deans’ and department offices and some classrooms.) In 1908 the College accepted its first class. In 1911 Smith, then aged 91, laid the cornerstone of the college’s first residence hall, Miller House, named for Elizabeth Smith Miller. The building still serves as a residence.
William Smith died on February 6, 1912, aged 93, only four months before the graduation of his college’s inaugural class.
In 2008, during William Smith College centennial celebrations, a statue of Smith was unveiled. The sculptor was Ted Aub, a Hobart and William Smith Colleges art professor who also created the statue of Amelia Bloomer introducing Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton that stands on the shore of Van Cleef Lake in Seneca Falls, New York.