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


Not much is known about Smithson's life: his scientific collections, notebooks, diaries, and correspondence were lost in a fire that destroyed the Smithsonian Institution Buildingmarker in 1865; only the 213 volumes of his personal library and some personal writings survived. Smithson was born in 1765 in Parismarker, Francemarker, an illegitimate, unacknowledged son of an English landowner, the highly regarded and accomplished Sir Hugh Smithson, 4th Baronet of Stanwickmarker, north Yorkshiremarker, who later changed his name to Hugh Percy, and became the 1st Duke of Northumberland, K.G..

James Smithson's mother was his father's mistress, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, 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 Westonmarker, near Bathmarker, Somersetmarker; so the young Smithson originally was called Jacques Louis Macie. His mother later married John Marshe Dickinson, a troubled son of Marshe Dickinson who was Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1757 and Member of Parliament. During this marriage, she had another son; but the 1st Duke of Northumberland, rather than Dickinson, is thought to have been the father of this second son also.

Smithson commenced undergraduate studies at Pembroke Collegemarker, University of Oxfordmarker, 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 risked drowning to gather geological observations on a tour of the Hebrides Islandsmarker.

On 19 April 1787, at age 22, under the name James Lewis Macie, he was elected the youngest fellow of the Royal Society. 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.

Smithson died on 27 June 1829, in Genoamarker; his body was buried in the English cemetery of San Benigno there. In 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, then Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, brought Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington, D.C.marker, where they were entombed at the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle). His sarcophagus incorrectly states his age at his death as 75; he was 64.

Scientific career

Smithson dedicated his life to investigating the natural world, and visited Florencemarker, Paris, Saxonymarker, and the Swiss Alpsmarker 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. In 1802, Smithson proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals and not zinc oxides, as was previously thought. One, zinc spar (ZnCO3), a type of zinc ore, was renamed smithsonite posthumously in Smithson's honour in 1832 by a French scientist. Smithsonite was a principal source of zinc until the 1880s. Smithson also invented the term silicate.

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. He was acquainted with leading scientists of his day, including French mathematician, physicist and astronomer François Arago; Sir Joseph Banks; Henry Cavendish; Scottishmarker geologist James Hutton; Irishmarker chemist Richard Kirwan; Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley.

The Smithsonian connection

James Smithson's tomb in the Smithsonian Castle
A shrewd investor, Smithson amassed a fortune in his lifetime. 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 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."

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 sovereign were shipped to Philadelphiamarker 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.

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.


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

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


Elizabeth Langdale
Paternal Grandmother:
Philadelphia Reveley

William Reveley of Newby Wiske(1662-1725)

Margery Willey
Elizabeth Hungerford Keate (1728-1800)
Maternal Grandfather:

John Keate (1709-c1755)

John Keate

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

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

Mary Fletcher


  1. 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).
  2. James Smithson on the Royal Society website. Retrieved on 18 June 2007.
  3. See .
  4. 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).
  5. Reference no. M/215 in the Royal Society's collection: see the Royal Society's website, retrieved on 18 June 2007.


The plaque to Smithson just before its unveiling.
Historian and Smithson biographer Heather Ewing speaks while the director of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr Julian Raby, looks on

Further reading


  • 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.


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