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Samuel Smiles (1812 - 1904)

A medical graduate from Haddington who moved south and became the father of the modern self-help book.

Samuel Smiles

Career changes, increased positivity, and a desire for greater wealth - they’re all behind the popularity of the self-help book, those ubiquitous, soul-inspiring calls-to-action supposedly written to help us take control of our own destiny. And with the worldwide genre continuing to thrive, it can be with pride that we credit Edinburgh alumnus Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) with their creation.

Hard work and perseverance

Smiles’s book, bearing the then-original title of Self-Help, was published in 1859, the product of years spent bettering himself, emerging from humble beginnings as a grocer’s son in Haddington to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, before moving to Leeds to begin his career as a journalist. In it, he extolled the virtues of self-education, hard work and perseverance.

Self-improvement was the crux of Smiles’s belief in social advancement, a sentiment that has resonated down the years to the vast collections of self-help literature that fill whole sections of bookshops today.

Luckily for Smiles, who had self-financed the publishing of his book, Self-Help was an instant success with socially mobile Victorians, selling 20,000 copies in its first year of publication and over 250,000 by the time of Smiles’s death in 1904.

Although criticised in some socialist quarters for its celebration of the individual, the book also propelled Smiles to celebrity status, becoming a much sought-after commentator in newspapers and releasing a further four works in the self-help genre with such unambiguous titles as Character, Thrift, Duty and Life and Labour.


Smiles was also a much respected biographer, writing volumes on such luminaries as railway pioneer George Stephenson, the merchant and philanthropist George Moore, and James Nasmyth, the Edinburgh-born inventor of the steam hammer. Smiles also published studies on the lives of French Huguenots in both Britain and France.

But it is for Self-Help that he will always be best-remembered, and while many of today’s examples of the genre might seem faddy, Smiles's legacy can be the recognition of the human desire to improve.