James Smithson as an Oxford Student by James Roberts, 1786
James Smithson (c.1765–1829), the founding donor of the Smithsonian was an English chemist and mineralogist. He was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow who was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland. His exact birthday remains unknown because he was born in secret in Paris, where his mother had gone to hide her pregnancy. In his youth, his name was James Lewis Macie, but in 1801, after his parents died, he took his father’s last name of Smithson.
Portrait Medal of James Smithson by N. P. Tiolier, 1817
Smithson never married; he had no children; and he lived a peripatetic life, traveling widely in Europe during a time of great turbulence and political upheaval. He was in Paris during the French Revolution, and was later imprisoned during the Napoleonic Wars. Friends with many of the great scientific minds of his age, he believed that the pursuit of science and knowledge was the key to happiness and prosperity for all of society. He saw scientists as benefactors of all mankind, and thought that they should be considered “citizens of the world.”
Smithson was interested in almost everything and studied a wide range of natural phenomena: the venom of snakes, the chemistry of volcanoes, the constituents of a lady’s tear, and even the fundamental nature of electricity. He published twenty-seven papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee, to an analysis of the mineral calamine, critical in the manufacture of brass—which led to the mineral being named smithsonite in his honor. In one of his last papers, he laid out his philosophy most clearly: “It is in his knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness. . . . No ignorance is probably without loss to him.”
Handwritten Draft of James Smithson Will, Pages 1 and 3 and 2 and 4, by Smithson, James 1765-1829, 1826, Smithsonian Archives – History Div, 72-3960-A and 72-3960.
Toward the end of his life, under a clause in his will, he left his fortune to the United States, a place he had never visited, to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, and was interred nearby. In 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson’s remains to the United States to rest at the Institution, his bequest created. Although Smithson’s papers and his vast mineral collection were all destroyed by fire in 1865, the story of his life and work has been largely recovered in the recent biography, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, by Heather Ewing. This website draws heavily on this work, and on the rich collections and resources of the Smithsonian.
Courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.