James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution – what do you think his astrological sign was? Leo or Virgo? Pisces or Taurus? We don’t know and probably never will because we don’t know when he was born! Even the year of his birth was a source of confusion until extrapolated from school records. Initially, Smithsonian officials thought he was born in 1754 because the inscription on his gravestone says: “Sacred to the memory of James Smithson Esquire, Fellow of the Royal Society, London, who died at Genoa the 26th June 1829, aged 75 years.” We know the inscription was prepared by Smithson’s nephew because the reverse reads, “This monument is erected and the ground on which it stands is purchased in perpetuity by Henry Hungerford. Esq., the deceased’s nephew….” And these officials thought his closest relative would know his age – perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t – or perhaps he provided the wrong age deliberately…
We now believe that James Lewis Macie, later know as James Smithson, was born in France in the first half of 1765. Why the secrecy? He was the illegitimate child of an English gentlewomen, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, and the recently elevated Sir Hugh Smithson, who was married to Elizabeth Macie’s cousin, Elizabeth Percy. The two probably met at Bath, a fashionable English resort near Elizabeth Macie’s home of Weston. In addition to children with his wife, Hugh Smithson fathered several other children with other women, notably Philadelphia and Dorothy Percy. James Macie spent his early years in France but then returned to England for his education. He completed his studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating with a master’s degree in science in 1786.
In 1801, after both his parents had died, James Macie changed his name to James Smithson, adopting his father’s name, although not allowed by the courts to not inherit his father’s titles. After a life devoted to science, James Smithson died at Genoa, Italy, June 26, 1829. He left his estate to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson (later Hungerford), the son of his brother Henry Louis Dickinson. That nephew arranged for the monument, listing his uncle’s age as 75 years. Did he not know how old his uncle was or was the age misrepresented to cover up Smithson’s illegitimacy? The nephew died a few years later, in 1835, leaving no record of his knowledge about his uncle. Upon his death, a peculiar clause went into effect, leaving the remaining estate to the people of the United States to found an Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. When the cemetery in Genoa where he rested closed, Smithson’s remains were brought to the United States by Alexander Graham Bell.
The Smithsonian has established that James Smithson was born in 1765 so this year is the 250 anniversary of his birth. We don’t know his birthday, so we get to celebrate the anniversary all year long! Happy 250th birth anniversary, James Smithson! We remain grateful for your generosity!
James Smithson, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithson’s Crypt, Smithsonian Institution Preservation