Saturday, November 14, 2009

Otterbein and Smellie

Otterbein College and Smellie by Alan Borer

There appeared in the Religious Telescope in the fall of 1847 a list of the textbooks that the students attending the Winter term of Otterbein’s first year would need. Lewis Davis wrote, “Below is a list of text books, selected by the principal, which can be purchased at the institution.” About forty books were listed, and showed the religious and classical bent of contemporary education. Webster’s Dictionary was among them, and several volumes of Cicero, but most are unknown today. Olmsted’s Astronomy, Whatley’s Rhetoric, and Paley’s Theology are forgotten now. Even the college library’s copies were lost when the Otterbein main building was destroyed by fire in 1871.

One of the books was listed as Smellie’s Philosophy of History. It is hard not to chortle at a name like Smellie, but William Smellie’s accomplishments were nothing to laugh at. Smellie (1740-1795) was an antiquarian, scholar, and printer. A friend of poet Robert Burns, Smellie was the editor of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.. Although a product of his times (he defined the word “woman” solely as “the female of man”), he contributed to making the Encyclopaedia a great success.

The book used at Otterbein was his The Philosophy of Natural History, 2 vol. (1790–99). Written at the end of a life filled with scholarship, one wonders what Smellie would have thought of that tiny college in the woods that was Otterbein in its first year.

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