William Small

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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; "[i]n 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 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 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, although it has been assumed that it was malaria since he had been in Virginia -- and indeed it may have been malaria but he was diagnosed by Erasmus Darwin, Alexander Small, and William Heberden[2]. Jefferson's last letter to him was dated May 7, 1775.[3]


Primary Source References[4]

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."[5]

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."[6]


  1. Martin Richard Clagett, "William Small, Teacher, Mentor, Scientist". Ph.D. Dissertation, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003, 153.
  2. Information provided by Martin R. Claggett, 9/6/09
  3. Other letters between the two were probably destroyed in the Shadwell fire of 1770. See PTJ, 1:165-166 and Library of Congress.
  4. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
  5. "'L&B, 14:231.
  6. Peterson, Writings, 4.

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Further Sources