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James Smithson - Biography of the Founding Donor of the Smithsonian

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James Smithson

James Smithson

Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives
Dates: Born in Paris, France 1765, Died in Genoa, Liguria 1829

Occupation: Scientist and Philanthropist

Known for: James Smithson was the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution. Smithson devoted his life to scientific research and experimentation in chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. Since its establishment more than 160 years ago, the Smithsonian has become the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and numerous research facilities.

Education: Smithson earned a Master of Arts Degree from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1786.

About James Smithson

James Smithson was born James Louis Macie, an illegitimate, unacknowledged son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland and one of the great patrons of the 18th century. His mother, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, was his father’s mistress, a wealthy widow from Weston, England, and a cousin of the Duke’s wife. Born in France, he became a naturalized British citizen around the age of ten. When his mother died, in 1800, he and his half brother Henry Louis Dickinson inherited a sizable estate. Following his mothers death, he changed his surname from Macie to his father's surname, Smithson.

Smithson excelled in chemistry and mineralogy and published 27 papers that ranged from mineral analyses and identifications to improvements to the blowpipe and other apparatus, as well as a treatise on a better method for making coffee. His most important paper, “A Chemical Analysis of Some Calamines,” led the French mineralogist François Beudant to name the mineral zinc carbonate “smithsonite” in 1832. Smithson was acquainted with the leading scientists of his time, including the astronomer Dominique François Arago; the founder of comparative anatomy Georges Cuvier; the French chemist Claude Berthollet, the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius; the Dane Hans-Christian Oersted, discoverer of electro-magnetism; and the famed explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

When Smithson died in 1829, he left his estate, valued at more than $500,000, to the United States “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The United States created the Smithsonian Institution (approved by Congress Aug. 10, 1846) with a 17-member Board of Regents to govern and administer the organization. Today, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, housing collections in natural history, American history, air and space, the fine arts, cultural history and other fields. The Smithsonian Institution includes 19 museums, four research centers, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, the Smithsonian Magazine, the Smithsonian Institution Press, a Traveling Exhibition Service, and a number of other offices.

The motives behind James Smithson’s bequest are unknown and remain a mystery. He never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone in the country. Unfortunately, not much is known about Smithson’s personal life. In 1865, only a decade after the completion of the Smithsonian Institution’s first building, the “Castle,” Smithson’s diaries and papers, his mineral collection and other personal possessions were destroyed in a terrible fire.

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