Smith is credited with creating the first nationwide geologic map and is known as the "Father of English Geology". However, recognition was slow in coming. His work was plagarized, he was financially ruined and spent time in debtor's prison. The genteel practioners of the new science of geology and founders of the geological societies snubbed the low-born Smith. It was only much later in Smith's life that he received recognition for his accomplishments.
Smith was born in the village of Churchill in Oxfordshire. In 1787, he found work as an assistant for Edward Webb of Stow, a surveyor. He was a quick study and soon became proficient at the trade. In 1791, he travelled to Somerset to make a valuation survey of an estate. He stayed here for the next eight years working first for Webb and later for the Somerset Coal Canal Company.
Smith worked at one of the estate's older mines, the Mearns Pit at High Littleton. As he observed the strata at Mearns Pit he realized that the strata were arranged in a predictable pattern and that the various strata could always be found in the same relative positions. Additionally, each particular stratum could be identified by the fossils it contained. This gave Smith a testable hypothesis and he began his search to determine if the relationships between the strata and their characteristics were consistent throughout the country. During his subsequent travel, as a surveyor (appointed by noted engineer John Rennie) for the canal company until 1799 when he was fired, and after, he was continually taking samples and mapping the locations of the various strata. This was to earn him the name, "Strata Smith".
On August 31 1819 Smith was released from King's Bench Prison in London, a debtor's prison. He returned to his home of 14 years at 15 Buckingham Street to find a bailiff at the door and his home and property seized.
In January 1831 the Geological Society of London conferred on Smith the first Wollaston medal. It was on this occasion that Adam Sedgwick referred to Smith as "the Father of English Geology". In 1838 he was appointed as one of the commissioners to select building-stone for the new Palace of Westminster. He died in Northampton.