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James Smithson

James Smithson

An 1816 portrait of Smithson by Henri-Joseph Johns, now in the National Portrait Gallery
of the Smithsonian Institution
Paris, France
DiedJune 27 1829 (aged 64)
Genoa, Liguria, Italy
Nationality British
FieldMineralogy and chemistry
Alma materPembroke College, University of Oxford
Known forProving zinc carbonates are true carbonate minerals and not zinc oxides (1802); leaving a bequest in his will to the USA which was used to initially fund the Smithsonian Institution
Notable prizesFellow of the Royal Society (1787)
For related terms, see Smithsonian (disambiguation).

James Smithson, F.R.S., M.A. (1765 – June 27, 1829) was a British mineralogist and chemist noted for having left a bequest in his will to the United States of America, which was used to initially fund the Smithsonian Institution.



Not much detail is known about the life of James Smithson, as a fire which destroyed the Smithsonian Institution Building in 1865 took with it Smithson's scientific collections, notebooks, diaries and correspondence.[1] Only the 213 volumes comprising his personal library and some personal writings survived.[2] What is known is that Smithson was an illegitimate and unacknowledged son of the English landowner, the highly regarded and accomplished Sir Hugh Smithson, 4th Bt. of Stanwick, north Yorkshire, who later changed his name to Hugh Percy, and became the 1st Duke of Northumberland, K.G., by a mistress, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate. He was born in 1765 in Paris, France.


Elizabeth Keate was the daughter of John Keate, an uncle of George Keate (1729–1797), who was elected to the Royal Society in 1766. Elizabeth was the widow of John Macie of Weston, near Bath, Somerset, and so the young Smithson was originally known as "Jacques Louis Macie". His mother later married John Marshe Dickinson, a troubled son of a former Lord Mayor of London and Member of Parliament. During this marriage she had another son; however, the 1st Duke of Northumberland rather than Dickinson is also thought to have been the father of this second son.

Smithson commenced undergraduate studies at Pembroke College, University of Oxford,[3] in 1782 and received a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in 1786 (he matriculated as "Jacobus Ludovicus Macie"). French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond described him as a diligent young student, dedicated to scientific research, who had even risked drowning to gather geological observations on a tour of the Hebrides Islands.[4]

On 19 April 1787, at the age of just 22 years, he was elected (under the name "James Lewis Macie") the youngest fellow of the Royal Society.[1] When his mother died in 1800, he and his brother inherited a sizable estate. Around 1802 he changed his surname from "Macie" to his father's surname "Smithson".[5]

Smithson died on 27 June 1829 in the Italian city of Genoa, and his body was interred in the English cemetery of San Benigno there.[5] In 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, at that time Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, brought Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington, D.C., where they were reinterred in a tomb at the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle).[6] His sarcophagus incorrectly states his age at his death – it says 75; he was in fact only 64.

Scientific career


Smithson dedicated his life to investigating the natural world, and visited Florence, Paris, Saxony, and the mountains of Switzerland to find crystals and minerals on which he could perform experiments – including diluting, grinding, igniting, and even chewing and sniffing them – to discover and classify their elemental properties.[1] In 1802, Smithson proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals and not zinc oxides, as was previously thought.[2][7] One, zinc spar (ZnCO3), a type of zinc ore, was renamed smithsonite posthumously in Smithson's honour in 1832 by a French scientist.[1] Smithsonite was a principal source of zinc until the 1880s. Smithson also invented the term silicate.[1]

Smithson 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.[2] He was acquainted with leading scientists of his day, including French mathematician, physicist and astronomer François Arago; Sir Joseph Banks; Henry Cavendish; Scottish geologist James Hutton; Irish chemist Richard Kirwan; Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley.[1][8]

The Smithsonian connection

A shrewd investor, Smithson amassed a fortune in his lifetime.[1] On his death, Smithson's will left his fortune to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson, son of his brother who had died in 1820. Smithson had had him change his name to Hungerford in the mid-1820s and in the will stipulated that if that nephew died without legitimate or illegitimate children, the money should go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."[9]

The nephew, Henry Hungerford (the soi disant Baron Eunice de la Batut), died without heirs in 1835, and Smithson's bequest was accepted in 1836 by the United States Congress. A lawsuit (in Britain) contesting the will was decided in favour of the U.S. in 1838 and 11 boxes containing 104,960 gold sovereigns[1] were shipped to Philadelphia and minted into dollar coinage worth $508,318. There was a good deal of controversy about how the purposes of the bequest could be fulfilled, and it was not until 1846 that the Smithsonian Institution was founded.

Smithson had never been to the United States, and the motive for the specific bequest is unknown. There is an unsourced tradition within the (existing) Percy family that it was to found an institution that would last longer than his father's dynasty. It is also speculated that he was disinclined towards the British social system (perhaps because he was frustrated by being not only a younger but an unacknowledged son of a Duke) and liked the United States' revolutionary and, possibly to him, fresher spirit.[citation needed] He had also lived in France for a while during their revolution.[citation needed]

On 18 September 1965, in the year of the bicentenary of Smithson's birth, the Smithsonian Institution awarded to the Royal Society a 14-ct. gold medal bearing a left-facing bust of Smithson.[10]


Some of Smithson's ancestors
James Louis Macie Smithson Father:
Sir Hugh Smithson (Percy),1st Duke of Northumberland
Paternal Grandfather:
Langdale Smithson

Sir Hugh Smithson,3rd Bart., of Stanwick, (1657-1733)

Hon. Elizabeth Langdale
Paternal Grandmother:
Philadelphia Reveley

William Reveley of Newby Wiske(1662-1725)

Margery Willey
Elizabeth Hungerford Keate (1728-1800)
Maternal Grandfather:
Lt. John Keate (1709-c1755)

John Keate

Frances Hungerford
Maternal Grandmother:
Penelope Fleming (c1711-1764)

Henry Fleming, DD, (1659-1728), Rector of Grasmere

Mary Fletcher


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Colquhoun, Kate. "A Very British Pioneer (review of Heather Ewing's The Lost World of James Smithson)", The Telegraph (Review), 2007-05-26. 
  2. ^ a b c Who was James Smithson? : A Man of Science. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 2007-06-18.
  3. ^ A plaque commemorating Smithson's undergraduate days was erected at Broadgate Hall in Pembroke College by the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution in 1896. Its inscription reads: "JAMES SMITHSON -FRS- FOUNDER OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION – WASHINGTON. ERECTED BY THE REGENTS OF THE INSTITUTION 1896". A photograph of the plaque can be viewed on the Pembroke College website (retrieved on 19 June 2007).
  4. ^ Who was James Smithson? : The Student Years. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 2007-06-18.
  5. ^ a b James Smithson on the Royal Society website. Retrieved on 18 June 2007.
  6. ^ Who was James Smithson? : Smithson Leaves Bequest to the United States. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 2007-06-18.
  7. ^ See Smithson, James (1803), " ", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, .
  8. ^ Who was James Smithson? : A World of Scientific Ideals. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 2007-06-18.
  9. ^ A draft version of a transcript of Smithson's 1826 will may be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution's website (retrieved on 18 June 2007).
  10. ^ Reference no. M/215 in the Royal Society's collection: see the Royal Society's website, retrieved on 18 June 2007.


  • Who was James Smithson?. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 2005-01-27.
  • Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Record Unit 7000 : James Smithson Collection, 1764–1983. Smithsonian Institution Archives (2006-06-05). Retrieved on 2007-06-19.
  • Colquhoun, Kate. "A Very British Pioneer (review of Heather Ewing's The Lost World of James Smithson)", The Telegraph (Review), 2007-05-26. 
  • James Smithson on the Royal Society website. Retrieved 18 June 2007
  • Smithson, James. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved on 2007-06-19.

Further reading


  • "How a Mysterious Englishman's Fortune Founded the Smithsonian", CNN, 2000-05-08. 
  • Stamberg, Susan (2002-03-07). The Smithsonian's Photographic History Project : Bringing Light to an American Institution's Photo Collection. National Public Radio. Retrieved on 2007-06-19. Refers to a photograph, believed to have been taken by Alexander Graham Bell's wife, of an unidentified man holding the skull of James Smithson on the occasion of Alexander Graham Bell's mission to Genoa, Italy, in 1904 to retrieve Smithson's remains and bring them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
  • Larner, Jesse. "Foreign Motivations : How a Former President and an English Scientist Gave Us the Smithsonian (review of Nina Burleigh's The Stranger and the Statesman)", San Francisco Chronicle, 2003-12-21. 


  • Bello, Mark; William Schulz, Madeleine Jacobs & Alvin Rosenfeld (eds.) (1993). The Smithsonian Institution, a World of Discovery : An Exploration of Behind-the-Scenes Research in the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities. Washington, D.C.: Distributed by Smithsonian Institution Press for Smithsonian Office of Public Affairs. ISBN 1560983140. 
  • Bolton, Henry Carrington (1896). The Smithsonian Institution : Its Origin, Growth, and Activities. New York, N.Y.: [s.n.]. 
  • Burleigh, Nina (2003). The Stranger and the Statesman : James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, The Smithsonian. New York, N.Y.: Morrow. ISBN 0-06-000241-7 (hbk.). 
  • Ewing, Heather (2007). The Lost World of James Smithson : Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian. [USA]: Bloomsbury. ISBN 1596910291 (hbk.). 
  • Goode, George Brown (ed.) (1897). The Smithsonian Institution, 1846–1896 : The History of its First Half Century. Washington, D.C.: [s.n.].  Reprinted as Goode, George Brown (ed.) (1980). The Smithsonian Institution, 1846–1896. New York, N.Y.: Arno Press. ISBN 0405125844. 
  • Gurney, Gene ([1964]). The Smithsonian Institution, a Picture Story of its Buildings, Exhibits, and Activities. New York, N.Y.: Crown. 
  • Karp, Walter ([1965]). The Smithsonian Institution; an Establishment for the Increase & Diffusion of Knowledge among Men. [Washington, D.C.]: Smithsonian Institution. 
  • Rhees, William Jones (comp. & ed.) (1901). The Smithsonian Institution : Documents Relative to its Origin and History, 1835–1889. Washington, D.C.: G.P.O.  Reprinted as Rhees, William Jones (ed.) (1980). The Smithsonian Institution, 1835–1899 (2 vols.). New York, N.Y.: Arno Press. ISBN 0405125836. 

NAME James Smithson
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Jacques Louis Macie; James Lewis Macie, James Louis Macie Smithson
SHORT DESCRIPTION British mineralogist and chemist who left a bequest in his will to the USA which was used to initially fund the Smithsonian Institution
PLACE OF BIRTH Paris, France
DATE OF DEATH 27 June 1829
PLACE OF DEATH Genoa, Liguria, Italy


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "James_Smithson". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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