William Small

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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William Small (1734-1775) was professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College of William and Mary. He was a mentor to Jefferson while he 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. However, Small changed this as Martin Clagett, states, "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 huge influence on Jefferson's intellectual development. he introduced Jefferson to science, math, and the Enlightenment thinkers. Outside of the classroom, he helped introduce young Jefferson to Governor Francis Fauquier and George Wythe.

Small would leave for England in 1764 to acquire scientific instruments for the college but never returned. While there, he received a medical degree and became an adivsor to Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Boulton, Small, and Erasmus Darwin created the Birmingham Lunar Society where Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, William Withering, and others came together. He died in London of a malarial fever. Jefferson's last letter to him is dated May 7, 1775.[2]


Primary Source References[3]

1815 January 15. (Jefferson to L.H. Girardin). "Dr. Small was his [George Wythe] bosom friend, and to me as a father. To his enlightened and affectionate guidance of my studies while at college, I am indebted for everything...He first introduced into both schools rational and elevated courses of study, and, from an extraordinary conjunction of eloquence and logic, was enabled to communicate them to the students with great effect. He procured for me the patronage of Mr. Wythe, and both of them, the attentions of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who ever filled the chair of government there...At these dinners I have heard more good sense, more rational and 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]


  1. Martin Richard Clagett, "William Small, Teacher, Mentor, Scientist". Ph.D. Dissertation, Virginia Commonweath University, 2003, 153.
  2. Other letters between the two were probably destroyed in the Shadwell fire of 1770. See PTJ, 1:165-166 and Library of Congress.
  3. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
  4. "'L&B, 14:231.
  5. Peterson, Writings, 4.

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Further Sources