James Smithson: Who Was the Guy Who Gave Us the Smithsonian Institution?
A view of the Smithsonian Institution building in a field of daisies in Washington DC, circa 1860s. Source: (Photo by Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. is known as “America’s attic.” Here, many of the most important artifacts and memorabilia for the country’s history are housed and displayed for the public to enjoy. Since 1846, the massive museum has been one of the most revered places in the United States. But, what do you know about the man for whom the Smithsonian is named? Let’s learn about James Smithson and how “America’s attic” came to bear his name.
Smithson wasn’t his Birth Name
James Smithson was born sometime at the end of 1765. His birth was not recorded because he was born to an unwed mother who kept her pregnancy and birth a secret. His mother, Elizabeth Hungerford Macie, gave him the name James Lewis Macie. Later, she told her son that is father was Hugh Smithson, the First Duke of Northumberland. As a teen, he became a British citizen and officially changed his name to James Smithson.
Smithson was a Chemist and Mineralogist
James Smithson graduated from Pembroke College at Oxford in 1786. During this time, there was an explosion of interest in the natural sciences and Smithson established himself as a well-respected chemist, mineralogist, and natural science. He did field research, collecting mineral samples for study, and published his findings. He was accepted into The Royal Society of London in 1787. Although he became wealthy and had the respect of his peers, Smithson always felt that he did not fit into the class hierarchy of British society because he was an illegitimate child.
James Smithson Never Visited the United States…Alive
Although James Smithson traveled across Europe in his lifetime, he never made a trip across the pond to the United States. Yet, when he wrote his last will and testament in 1826, three years before his death, he showed his generosity toward the U.S. He stated in his will that, upon his death, his entire estate would go to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, but if that nephew died without an heir, then he directed that his money should be donated 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.” So, when Smithson’s nephew passed away, the U.S. was the heir to Smithson’s $500,000.
Why would Smithson Leave Money to a Country He Never Visited?
That’s a good question and one that no one can definitively answer. The prevailing theory is that James Smithson was so disheartened by the class structure and aristocratic privilege that was so rooted in England that he wanted his wealth to benefit the common man and everyday scientist. Only in the United States would that be possible.
The U.S. Almost Denied the Inheritance
When the U.S. Congress was informed about the generous gift, most of them were suspicious. The sticking point was that James Smithson stated that the funds go to establishing a facility to be named after him. Some of the congressmen felt that accepting the gift would set a dangerous precedent because people could, in a sense, buy naming rights with a hefty donation. Other congressmen wondered if creating a national institution would infringe on state rights. In the end, of course, they voted to accept the donation.
Did Alexander Graham Bell Dig Up Smithson’s Grave?
Alexander Graham Bell once served on the board of directors of the Smithsonian Institution. Without informing any of the other members, and without asking permission, Bell traveled to Genoa, Italy, where Smithson was buried in 1829. Bell arranged for Smithson’s grave to be dug up and his bones and headstone to be moved to the United States. In 1904, the remains of Smithson were reburied on the grounds of the Smithsonian.
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