Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 53.djvu/178

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


contribution to the ‘Transactions’ of the Royal Society, being ‘A Chemical Analysis of some Calamines, by James Smithson, Esq.,’ read on 18 Nov. 1802 (Phil. Trans. xciii. 12). This analysis quite upset the opinion of the Abbé Haüy that calamines were all mere oxides or ‘calces’ of zinc, and established these minerals in the rank of true carbonates. To commemorate this discovery the name Smithsonite was conferred on a native carbonate of zinc. Another paper, ‘On Quadruple and Binary Compounds, particularly Sulphurets,’ appeared in the ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ 1807 (xxix. 275). His other contributions to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ were: ‘Account of a Discovery of Native Minium’ (1806, vol. xcvi. pt. i. p. 267); ‘On the Composition of the Compound Sulphuret from Huel Boys, and an Account of its Crystals’ (1808, vol. xcviii. pt. i. p. 55); ‘On the Composition of Zeolite’ (1811, ci. 171); ‘On a Substance from the Elm Tree called Ulmin’ (1813, vol. ciii. pt. i. p. 64); ‘On a Saline Substance from Mount Vesuvius’ (1813, vol. ciii. pt. i. p. 256); ‘A few Facts relative to the Colouring Matters of some Vegetables’ (1817, cviii. 110). His name disappears from the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ after 1817, but is frequently to be found in the ‘Annals of Philosophy’ from 1819. In 1822 he published in that journal a paper ‘On the Detection of very Minute Quantities of Arsenic and Mercury,’ descriptive of a method for a long time used by chemists. He wrote altogether eighteen articles in Thomson's ‘Annals of Philosophy’ (1819–1825). These, with the eight papers read before the Royal Society, twenty-seven in all, were issued under the title of ‘The Scientific Writings of James Smithson, edited by W. J. Rhees’ (Smithsonian Misc. Collections, 1879, No. 327). In the opinion of Professor Clarke, ‘the most notable feature of Smithson's writings, from the standpoint of the modern analytical chemist, is the success obtained with the most primitive and unsatisfactory appliances. … He is not to be classed among the leaders of scientific thought; but his ability, and the usefulness of his contributions to knowledge, cannot be doubted.’ In an obituary notice Davies Gilbert, president of the Royal Society, associated the name of Smithson with those of Wollaston, Young, and Davy; ‘he was distinguished by the intimate friendship of Mr. Cavendish, and rivalled our most expert chemists in elegant analyses.’ Berzelius refers to him as ‘l'un des minéralogistes les plus expérimentés de l'Europe.’ He left a great quantity of unprinted matter. About two hundred manuscripts were forwarded to the United States with his effects, besides thousands of separate memoranda. Unfortunately, with the exception of a single volume, all perished in a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865. W. R. Johnson, who examined the papers before the formation of the institution, states that they dealt not only with science, but with history, the arts, language, gardening, and building, and such topics ‘as are likely to occupy the thought and to constitute the reading of a gentleman of extensive acquirements and liberal views’ (Misc. Coll. ut supra, p. 138). His cabinet, which was also destroyed, included some 10,000 specimens of minerals.

A large part of Smithson's life was passed on the continent. He lived in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Geneva, and associated everywhere with scientific men. Among his correspondents were Davy, Gilbert, Banks, Thomson, Black, Arago, Biot, and Klaproth. In later years, when his health became feeble, he resided chiefly in Paris, at 121 rue Montmartre. He died at Genoa, Italy, on 27 June 1829, aged 64, and was buried in the little English cemetery on the heights of San Benigno. The authorities of the Smithsonian Institution placed a tablet on the tomb, and another in the English church at Genoa; but on the demolition of the English cemetery at Genoa in 1903, Smithson's remains were removed to Washington early in 1904.

In his will, dated 23 Oct. 1826, Smithson describes himself as ‘son of Hugh, first duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth, heiress of the Hungerfords of Studley and niece of Charles the Proud, duke of Somerset, now residing in Bentinck Street, Cavendish Square.’ There was a bequest to an old servant, and the income of the property was left for life to a nephew, Henry James Hungerford, also known as Dickinson, and afterwards as Baron Eunice de la Batut (d. 1835). Subject to these provisions, the whole was bequeathed ‘to the United States of America, to be found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.’ The value of the effects was sworn as under 120,000l. in the prerogative court at Canterbury. The money is believed to have come chiefly from Colonel Henry Louis Dickinson (d. 1820), a son of his mother by a former marriage. A legacy of 3,000l. from Dorothy Percy, his half-sister on the paternal side, seems to have been all that Smithson received from his father's family. Republican sympathies appear to account for the bequest to the United States. In 1835 the United States legation in London was informed that the court of chancery was in possession of the