Open main menu

Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Smithson, James

Appletons' Smithson James.jpg

SMITHSON, James, philanthropist, b. in France about 1765; d. in Genoa, Italy, 27 June, 1829. He was a natural son of Sir Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Mrs. Elizabeth Macie, heiress of the Hungerfords, of Studley, and niece to Charles, Duke of Somerset. For some time he bore the name James Lewis (or Louis) Macie, but after 1791 he changed it to James Smithson. He was graduated at Oxford in 1786, and had the reputation of excelling all other resident members of the university in the knowledge of chemistry. In 1787, as “a gentleman well versed in various branches of natural philosophy and particularly in chemistry and mineralogy,” he was recommended for election to the Royal society, of which body in later years he was a vice-president. His first paper, presented to the society in 1791, was “An Account of some Chemical Experiments on Tabasheer,” and was followed from that time until 1817 with eight other memoirs treating for the most part of chemical analyses of various substances, principally minerals. He lived chiefly abroad, engaged in extensive tours in various parts of Europe, making minute observations wherever he went on the climate, physical features, and geological structure of the locality visited, the characteristics of its minerals, the methods employed in mining or smelting ores, and in all kinds of manufactures. Desirous of bringing to the practical test of actual experiment everything that came to his notice, he fitted up and carried with him a portable laboratory. He collected also a cabinet of minerals, composed of thousands of minute specimens, including all the rarest gems, so that immediate comparison could be made of a novel or undetermined specimen with an accurately arranged and labelled collection. Among the minerals that he examined was a carbonate of zinc that he discovered among some ores from Somersetshire and Derbyshire, England, that was named Smithsonite in his honor by the great French mineralogist, Beudant. From 1819 till his death his scientific memoirs were contributed to Thomson's “Annals of Philosophy.” Besides his connection with the Royal society, he was long a member of the French institute. He died in Genoa, where he had been residing temporarily, and a monument was erected to his memory in the Protestant cemetery. His illegitimate birth seems to have induced a strong desire for posthumous fame, although his scientific reputation was of the best, and at one time he writes: “The best blood of England flows in my veins; on my father's side I am a Northumberland, on my mother's I am related to kings; but it avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.” In order to carry out his ambition he bequeathed his property, about £120,000, to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, for his life, and after his decease, to his surviving children, but in the event of his dying without a child or children, then the whole of the property was “left to the United States for the purpose of founding an institution at Washington to be called the Smithsonian institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” By the death of his nephew in 1835 without heirs, the property devolved upon the United States, and on 1 Sept., 1838, after a suit in chancery, there was paid into the U. S. treasury $508,318.46. The disposition of the bequest was for several years before congress, but in August, 1846, the Smithsonian institution was founded, and an act of congress was passed directing the formation of a library, a museum (for which it granted the collections belonging to the United States), and a gallery of art, while it left to the regents the power of adopting such other parts of an organization as they may deem best suited to promote the objects of the bequest. Joseph Henry was chosen its executive officer, and under his wise management the institution has developed until it has grown to be one of the most important scientific centres of the world. A portion of the institution, of which the corner-stone was laid 1 May, 1847, is seen in the accompanying illustration. On 24 Jan., 1865, a part of it was destroyed by fire. See “The Scientific Writings of James Smithson ” (Washington, 1879); “The Smithsonian Institution: Documents relative to its Origin and History,” by William J. Rhees (1879); and “Smithson and his Bequest,” by William J. Rhees (1880).

Appletons' Smithson James Smithsonian.jpg