& the Founding of the Smithsonian
James Smithson(c. 1765-27
June 1829), scientist and philanthropist, was born James Lewis Macie,
probably in France, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, later the first
Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow
from Weston, England.
In 1786 he received the Masters of Arts degree from Pembroke College and a year later was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. He devoted his life to scientific research and experimentation in chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. He inherited the Hungerfords of Studley fortune from his mother.
At the turn of the century, after both his parents had died, Macie changed his name to James Smithson. Smithson spent most of his adult life traveling on the Continent. Smithson lived for many years and was inspired by the French Revolution but disillusioned by its bloody aftermath. He traveled throughout Europe, including Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Italy, in order to add to his mineral collection. Colleagues remarked upon his poor health throughout his adult life.
His only other passion than science was gambling, but, educated in the mathematical theory of odds, he limited his gaming to a predetermined amount. During the Napoleonic Wars, when England and Denmark declared war in August of 1807, Smithson was placed under house arrest in Denmark and Germany for two years. His health further deteriorated due to the poor conditions in which he was held.
The Bequest On 23 October 1826, while living
in London, Smithson wrote his will. Smithson left the Hungerford
estate to his nephew, then a young man. But Smithson added a
peculiar last clause, noting that if his nephew died without
heirs, legitimate or illegitimate, his estate was to go to the
United States, “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson died on 27 June 1829 while living in Genoa, Italy. Six years later, his nephew died in Pisa, Italy, leaving no heirs. The peculiar last clause now went into effect.
For the next eight years, the U.S. Congress debated what to do with the estate - - establish a university, astronomical observatory, scientific research laboratory, museum, or library? On 10 August 1846, President James K. Polk signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution, which included most of these ideas. In the years since its founding, the Smithsonian has become the world’s largest museum and research complex, with some seventeen museums and numerous research centers.
In 1904, when the Protestant Cemetery near Genoa where Smithson was buried was closed, Alexander Graham Bell, a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, brought Smithson’s remains from Italy, and he was laid to rest at the Institution he endowed.
The questions remain what Smithson meant by the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” and why he chose to bequeath his estate to a country he had never visited. Some speculate it was because he was denied his father’s legacy. Others argue that he was inspired by the United States’ experiment with democracy. Some attribute his philanthropy to ideals inspired by such organizations as the Royal Institution, which was dedicated to using scientific knowledge to improve human conditions. Smithson never wrote about or discussed his bequest with friends or colleagues, so we are left to speculate on the ideals and motivations of a gift that has had such significant impact on the arts, humanities, and sciences in the United States.
Photo Credit (Above)
Engraving of James Smithson as an adult, based upon a miniature portrait of Smithson done in oil on ivory by Henri Johns on May 11, 1816 at Aix la Chapelle, France, and purchased in 1878 from George Henry de la Batut of France. The engraving was prepared by the Heliotype Printing Company, Boston, c. 1881, and published in sepia tone in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, volume 21. The original portrait of Smithson is located in the National Portrait Gallery.
Additional Online Resources
Smithson’s Gift: The Story of a Bequest
From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution
Finding Aid to the James Smithson Collection in Smithsonian Institution Archives