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James Smithson

From Academic Kids

James Smithson (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 fund the Smithsonian Institution.

Contents

Biography

James Smithson was the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson, later known as Sir Hugh Percy, Baronet, 1st Duke of Northumberland, K.G., and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, and was born in 1765 in France. Elizabeth Keate had been married to James Macie, and so the name Smithson first bore was James Lewis Macie. His mother later married Mark Dickinson, by whom she had another son.

James Smithson was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford, receiving a Master of Arts degree in 1786. In 1787 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. When his mother died in 1800, he and his half-brother inherited a sizable estate. He changed his name at this time from "Macie" to "Smithson."

James Smithson died in 1829, in the Italian city of Genoa, and his body was interred in a tomb in the Protestant Cemetery there.

Scientific career

In 1802, Smithson proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals and not zinc oxides, as was previously thought. One calamine (a type of zinc ore) was renamed smithsonite posthumously in Smithson's honor in 1832. Smithsonite was a principal source of zinc until the 1880s.

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.

The Smithsonian connection

On his death, James Smithson's will left his fortune to his nephew, son of his half-brother, but stipulated that if that nephew died without children (legitimate or illegitimate), the money should 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 among men."

The nephew, Henry Hungerford Dickinson, 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 the favor of the United States in 1838 and eleven boxes of gold sovereigns 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.

James Smithson had never been to the United States, and the motive for the specific bequest is unknown.

In 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, at that time Regent of the Smithsonian, brought Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington, where they were re-interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building.

Further reading

  • Nina Burleigh, Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, The Smithsonian (Harpercollins, 2003) ISBN 0060002417

Sources

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