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A native of Dundee, Robert Smith graduated BSc from Dundee University College in 1896 and in the same year was appointed to the botanical department of the college under Professor Patrick Geddes. During the winter session of 1896-1897 he studied at the University of Montpellier, under Professor Flahault, one of the leading European authorities on plant distribution at the time, and it was upon returning to Scotland after this study that he began to carry out his scheme for a botanical survey of this country, based upon the new continental methods he had learned. After Smith's premature death in August 1900, his brother William G Smith carried on his work and two further Botanical Survey of Scotland maps were published in 1905, Robert Smith being posthumously credited with collaboration in these efforts.