Smithson to SmithsonianThe Birth of an Institution

The Smithsonian Institution is celebrating 175 years of the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Join us in exploring our history. What can we learn from looking back? How might the stories of the past put our present in a new light?"

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Who Was James Smithson?

James Smithson: The Man Behind the Institution

Portrait of James Smithson from the waist up in a dark suitWhile the institution named after James Smithson enjoys worldwide renown, we know little about the man who left $508,318 to the people of the United States to found such an institution.

An English scientist who conducted research in chemistry, mineralogy, and geology, Smithson lived and traveled in several European countries. His schooling and interests afforded him the opportunity to mix with many noted scientists.

Smithson was born in France in 1765. Named James Lewis Macie, he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, who later became the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow of royal blood. Smithson and his half brother Henry Louis Dickinson inherited a considerable estate from their mother's family.

The Student Years

Purchase of Smithson Portrait, January 11, 1850, Smithsonian Archives - History Div.
Smithson received a Master of Arts from Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1786. Noted scientist and fellow student Sir Davies Gilbert described Smithson as the best chemist and mineralogist of his year. 

University Subscription Register with handwritten text on a tan backgroundSmithson was called by his mother's name, Macie, until her death in 1800, when he adopted his father's name. In this register he is listed as "Jacobus Ludovicus Macie e Col[lege] Pem[broke]" ("James Lewis Macie of Pem[broke] Col[lege]" in Latin).

In one of the few descriptions we have of Smithson, French geologist Barthelemy Faujas de Saint Fond described him as a diligent young student, dedicated to scientific research, who even risked drowning to gather geological observations on a tour of the Hebrides Islands. William I. Thornton and Italian Count Paolo Andreani accompanied Smithson and Faujas de Saint Fond on the tour. This image shows three of the group studying "Ancient Monuments upon the Shore between Kirkaldy and Kinghorn" in Scotland.

Image of geologists studying ancient monuments in Scotland

The World of Scientific Ideals

"The . . . design of the Royal Society was to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful arts, manufactures, mechanick practises, engynes and inventions by experiments--(not meddling with divinity, metaphysics, moralls, politicks, grammar, rhetorick, or logick.)" -Statement by Robert Hooke, curator of the Royal Society of London, 1663

"[The Royal Institution's purpose is] diffusing the knowledge and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical improvements." -Excerpt of charter of Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1800

Full body drawing of Henry Cavendish in a wide brimmed hat, a long coat, and knee breeches.

Smithson, along with many of his friends, was an active member of several organizations dedicated to advancing scientific research and using science to benefit society. He and his friend Henry Cavendish, a noted chemist and physicist, were fellows of the Royal Society of London and charter members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Dominique Francois Arago
Smithson's close friend, French physicist and astronomer Dominique François Arago, advocated using science to improve everyday life. Influenced by the French Revolution, he dedicated himself to social reform and the education of the lower classes. 

A Man of Science

Mineralogical goniometer, used to measure the angle of crystals

"Every man is a valuable member of society who by his oberservations, researches, and experiments procures knowledge for men." -James Smithson

James Smithson's Calamines Paper, black typed text on light backgroundSmithson published at least 27 papers on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy in scientific journals. His topics included the chemical content of a lady's teardrop, the crystalline form of ice, and an improved method of making coffee.

Smithsonite with James Smithson Medallion
In 1802 Smithson overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides. One calamine (a type of zinc carbonate) was renamed smithsonite posthumously in Smithson's honor in 1832. Smithsonite was a principal source of zinc until the 1880s.

Luckily, all 213 volumes from Smithson's personal library, as well as a few of his writings, survived a devastating fire in the Smithsonian Building in 1865.


Image show spines of six books from Smithson's personal collection, in gold brown and orange colors

Smithson Leaves Bequest to the United States

Tomb of James Smithson in Italy
James Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, at the age of 64, after a long illness. 75 years later, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson's remains to Washington, where they were interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building.

Handwritten text of Smithson's will on light background

Smithson's will left the bulk of his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. But should his nephew die without children—legitimate or illegitimate—a contingency clause stated that the estate would go to "the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge…"

When Smithson's nephew died in 1835 without any heirs, the founding of the Smithsonian Institution—and a rousing national debate—were set in motion. Smithson did not explain his bequest in his public or private writings.Smithson's motives in leaving money to the United States are unknown. He drafted his own will following the guidance in this book.

Plain Advice to the Public. . .Making of Wills

When James Smithson died in 1829, press and public on both sides of the Atlantic were startled by the rather unusual provision in his will.

Front page of newspaper, typed text on tan background"We Find the Following Statement Respecting a Will . . ." - New-York American, January 26, 1830.

The press in Europe as well as the United States considered Smithson's bequest to the United States to be newsworthy even before the contingency clause became effective in 1835.

Did he feel his gift would have more impact on a young nation with only a few major educational and research institutions?

Did he hope to immortalize himself in the United States in reaction to opportunities denied him in Britain by his illegitimacy? (Smithson once wrote, "On my father's side I am a Northumberland, on my mother's I am related to kings, but this avails me not.")

Was he inspired by the tenets of many scientific societies of his day that held that civilization could achieve perfection through increased knowledge and public education?

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