The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian


Creator: Ewing, Heather Peale


Date: 2007


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  • Biography of James Smithson, 1765-1829, the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution. Smithson's papers were largely lost in the 1865 fire in the Smithsonian Castle, thus, he has remained an enigmatic figure. Working from the few remaining scraps, and scouring archives throughout Europe, Ewing has reconstructed the life of a man devoted to the power of science. Ewing paints of portrait of Smithson's high-spirited and litigious mother, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, and Smithson's lifelong struggle to overcome the stigma of his illegitimacy.
  • Using correspondence with scientific colleagues across Europe, Ewing reconstructs Smithson's passion for science, especially the new field of chemistry, and details his micro-chemical experiments. She traces the influence of London's coffee house culture on his scientific thinking and his entrance into the elite of 18th century science. Also addressed are his roles in such organizations as the Royal Society of London, Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the Académie des Sciences in Paris.
  • The author examines the motivations that led Smithson to write a secondary clause in his will that, if his estate had no heirs, legitimate or illegitimate, his fortune was to go to the United States to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Upon the death of Smithson's nephew, Henry James Hungerford, in 1835, that clause did, indeed, go into effect, setting in motion a chain of events that spanned continents. Ewing closes with the founding of the Institution created by Smithson's bequest, noting that for a life filled "with sadness and unfulfillment," Smithson's bequest created a legacy far greater than he could ever have dreamed - - the largest research/museum complex in the world in a country he never visited, the United States.


  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Macie, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate
  • Hungerford, Henry James c. 1808-1835
  • Royal Institution of Great Britain
  • Royal Society of London
  • Académie des sciences (France)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


  • Ewing is also a co-author of The Castle: An Illustrated History.
  • Image is a photograph of the portrait of James Smithson by Henri Johns done in 1816. The original portrait is located in the National Portrait Gallery. Negative #82-3206. Image is located in Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Photographs, Box 21.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Chemistry
  • Chemists
  • SI, Early History
  • Mineralogists
  • Experiments
  • Chemistry--Experiments


First edition

Physical description

Number of pages : 432

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