Ellis Gene Smith was born in 1936, in Ogden, Utah, to a traditional Mormon family. His father was a scientist working in a federal guided missile program; the family therefore moved around a lot.
After highschool, E. Gene Smith received a congressional appointment to the military academy at West Point. During summer 1954, he decided to move to New York City instead.
He studied at various colleges and universities, where he took classes in anthropology and Inner Asian studies, with special interest in Mongolian. His interest was, he says, fuelled by his resistance to the Vietnam war. “I was looking for things that would keep me out of Vietnam,” he said. “I wanted, more than anything, to stay out of the war.”
In 1959, about 80,000-100,000 Tibetans fled into exile, subsequent to the Chinese invasion. The Rockefeller Foundation funded the establishment of nine centers of excellence for Tibetan studies, one of which was located at the Far Eastern and Russian Institute of the University of Washington. From 1960, E. Gene Smith lived in Seattle with the family of Dagchen Rinpoche and his wife Damola Jamyang Sakya; he studied Tibetan culture and Buddhism with the nine Tibetans brought to Seattle for teaching and research by the Rockefeller Foundation.
After completing his PhD under supervision of Turrell Wylie – today best known for the system for transliterating Tibetan which is named after him – , in 1964 Gene traveled to Leiden for advanced studies in Sanskrit and Pali. Following a suggestion by Deshung Rinpoche, he went to India to study with Tibetan masters.
He traveled extensively in the borderlands of India and Nepal and established close contact with teachers of the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
In 1968 he joined the Library of Congress New Delhi Field Office. For the next three decades, Gene Smith did what he is now best known for in Tibetological circles: invest his energy in preserving Tibetan texts and making them widely available in printed form, by reprinting those Tibetan books that had been brought out by the exiles or that belonged to members of the Tibetan-speaking communities of Sikkim, Bhutan, India, and Nepal.
After five years as director of the Delhi office, Gene Smith was transferred to Indonesia in 1985, and to Cairo in 1994.
In 1997 he retired from the Library of Congress. He briefly worked as a consultant for the Trace Foundation for the establishment of the Himalayan and Inner Asian Resources, an organisation dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Tibetan literature.
In 1999, Gene Smith founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), together with Leonard van der Kuijp of Harvard University. As a library, the TBRC includes Gene Smith’s personal collection; new materials are acquired all the time. This is the largest collection of Tibetan literature outside of Tibet (excluding collections of Buddhist canonical literature). Gene Smith works at the TRBC part-time. His regular job nowadays is acquisitions editor at Wisdom Publications.
In 2001, Wisdom Publications published “Among Tibetan Texts”, a collection of essays that Smith wrote back in his Delhi times, as introductions to Library of Congress reprints of Tibetan texts. As introductions to Tibetan literature, culture and history, these had circulated since the early 1980s amongst students and researchers, and had acquired a sort of cult status.
Brief biography at TBRC website.
BBC article about the TBRC
New York Times portrait of Gene Smith