On this day in 1829, British scientist James Smithson dies childless in Italy at the age of 64, leaving behind a will with a peculiar clause. It directed that should his only nephew pass without any heirs, Smithson, who had never visited the young United States, would gift the whole of his estate 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.”
Born c. 1764 in Paris, France as the illegitimate child of Hugh Percy, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, Smithson was originally given the French name Jacques-Louis Macie and soon naturalized to Britain. There, Smithson attended university at Pembroke College, Oxford in 1782, eventually graduating with a B.A. in 1786. As a student he participated in numerous geological expeditions and studied chemistry and mineralogy.
At the age of twenty-two, he adopted his father’s surname of Smithson and traveled extensively throughout Europe, often publishing papers about his findings through the Royal Society. Considered a talented amateur in his field, Smithson was singularly nomadic, wandering Europe, partaking of geological expeditions and adventures, and finding himself in serendipitous places.
Smithson was in Paris during the French Revolution, and in August 1807 became a prisoner of war while in Tönning during the Napoleonic Wars. He arranged a transfer to Hamburg, where he was again imprisoned, now by the French, but ultimately freed through the help of fellow scientist Sir Joseph Banks, a lieutenant of explorer James Cook.
Amassing a considerable body of work, Smithson’s research was eclectic. He studied subjects ranging from coffee making to the development of calamine, eventually renamed smithsonite, then used in making brass. He also studied the chemistry of human tears, snake venom and other natural occurrences, and would publish some twenty-seven papers in his scientific career.
Unmarried and childless, Smithson’s wealth stemmed from the splitting of his mother’s estate with his half-brother, Col. Henry Louis Dickenson. After a prolonged illness, Smithson died in Genoa, Italy in 1829, and was buried in Sampierdarena in a Protestant cemetery. As stated in his will, Smithson left his fortune to his nephew, Henry James Dickenson, who changed his name to Hungerford as a stipulation to receive any bequest.
Under its terms, written in 1826, Smithson directed that Hungerford, or his children, would receive his inheritance, but that if his nephew did not live, or had no children to receive the fortune, it would be donated to the U.S.
When Hungerford died childless himself in 1835, President Andrew Jackson urged the quick formation of a committee, and eventually sent Attorney General Richard Rush to England to secure the bequest. Rush, apparently in no rush, returned in August 1838 with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns (about $500,000 at the time, which is equivalent to $11,491,000 today), as well as Smithson’s personal items, scientific notes, minerals, and library.
Finally, after years of Congressional wrangling, the Institution was opened in 1846, and came to be known “the nation’s attic” for its eclectic holdings of 154 million items. Today, the Institution’s nineteen museums, nine research centers, and zoo include historical and architectural landmarks and are largely located in the District of Columbia, with additional facilities in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York City, Pittsburgh, Texas, Virginia, and Panama, welcoming over 30 million visitors per year. There are more than 200 institutions and museums in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Panama known as Smithsonian Affiliates.
And yet, the strange story continues; when word of the relocation of Smithson’s grave reached Alexander Graham Bell in 1904, Bell and his wife sailed for Genoa to reclaim the remains. In January 1905 a ceremony was held and the body was escorted through Washington, D.C. by the United States Cavalry. When handing over the remains to the Smithsonian, Bell stated: “And now . . . my mission is ended and I deliver into your hands . . . the remains of this great benefactor of the United States.”
Thus, with Smithson’s remains safely snoozing in their crypt in Washington, this lesson finally endeth.