James Smithson: Founding Donor of the Smithsonian Institution

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  • This article includes a concise but comprehensive biography of James Smithson, the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, and a description of the present-day museum and research facility system which resulted from his gift. Smithson was born in Paris around 1765, the illegitimate son of English parents, a wealthy widow and Hugh Smithson, who soon became the Duke of Northumberland.
  • James Smithson's consuming interest in science began during his teenage years in the 1780's, a time which coincided with Europe's scientific awakening and the birth of the modern sciences of mineralogy, geology and chemistry. In 1775 he became a naturalized British citizen and graduated from Oxford as the top student in chemistry. Smithson became one of the youngest members of the Royal Society of London, and his life revolved around his laboratory, his countless scientific experiments and writing various publications.
  • The author writes that Smithson's life was shaped in large part by his travels throughout Europe. He became friends with several major scientific figures across the continent and maintained correspondence with a worldwide community of scientists. In his later years, Smithson settled in France and experienced times marked by political turmoil during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1808 he was captured as a prisoner of war as he tried to go home from a collecting trip; his fraternity of fellow scientists rescued him when the Academy of Sciences (Academie des Sciences) in Paris appealed directly to Napoleon for Smithson's release.
  • James Smithson wrote his will in 1826 and bequeathed "the whole of my property to the United States of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase of diffusion of knowledge among men." After Smithson died in 1829, the United States government was skeptical to learn that a foreigner who had never been to America would leave such an enormous sum to the country. The United States Congress debated for nearly a decade about how to use the bequest before compromising to include various ideas in the Smithsonian Institution's 1846 charter.
  • The author asserts that the illegitimacy of Smithson's birth weighed heavily on him throughout his life. James Smithson relished his place in the scientific community, where one was recognized for accomplishments rather than birth, and may have viewed the United States of America in a similar light, where one could take advantage of possibilities and realize full potential regardless of background. The Smithsonian Institution that has evolved from his gift continues to awe and inspire its visitors.


  • Smithson, Hugh, Sir 1715-1786
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • United States Congress
  • Smithsonian Institution Establishment of
  • Royal Society of London
  • Académie des sciences (France)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Article appears in the "Visionary" section of the magazine and includes photographs.

Contained within

Veranda Vol. XVIII, No. 5 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


September-October 2004


  • Science
  • SI, Early History
  • Museums
  • Societies
  • Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1814
  • Experiments
  • Smithson genealogy
  • Professional associations
  • Smithson Bequest
  • Gifts
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Scientists
  • Bequest
  • Biography
  • Science--Experiments


Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages : 3; Page numbers : 126, 128 & 253

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