Smithson, James (DNB00)

SMITHSON, JAMES (1765–1829), founder of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, United States, was known in early life as James Lewis or Louis Macie. Born in France in 1765 (the date of 1754, long accepted as correct, is taken from the inscription on his tombstone), he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson (1715–1786), who afterwards assumed the name of Percy [q. v.], and was the first Duke of Northumberland of the third creation. His mother, who was cousin of his father's wife, was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate (reputed to be daughter of Henry Keate, uncle of George Keate [q. v.]). She was, according to her son James, great-grandniece of Charles Seymour, the ‘proud’ duke of Somerset, and ‘heiress’ to the family of Hungerford of Studley; to a member of that family her sister was married. She had apparently been twice a widow before her illegitimate son was born. Her first husband's surname seems to have been Dickinson. Her second husband was James Macie, a country gentleman of an old family belonging to Weston, near Bath. Both husbands seem to have left her well provided for. In the will of her mother, Penelope Keate, dated 13 July 1764, she was described as ‘my daughter Elizabeth Macie of Bath, widow.’ Her second husband, Macie, was therefore dead before the birth of her illegitimate son in 1765. In 1766, on the death of her brother, Lumley Hungerford Keate, she inherited the property of the Hungerfords of Studley, which was doubtless one of the sources of her son's great wealth.

Young Smithson was brought from France at an early age, naturalised, and entered as a gentleman commoner at Pembroke College, Oxford. He matriculated on 7 May 1782 as ‘Jacobus Ludovicus Macie [changed to Smithson], 17, de Civit. Londin.—arm. Fil.’ (Add. MS. 33412, Brit. Mus.; Foster, Alumni Oxonienses, iii. 893, iv. 1323). He is said to have been the best chemist and mineralogist of his year. In 1784, at the age of nineteen, he made a geological tour to Oban, Staffa, and the Western Isles of Scotland, in company with Faujas de St. Fond, Count Andrioni, and others, and noted in his journals observations on mining and manufacturing processes. His vacations were usually devoted to similar excursions and the collection of minerals. He was created M.A. 26 May 1786, and was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society on 26 April 1787, being described as ‘late of Pembroke College, Oxford, and now of John Street, Golden Square, a gentleman well versed in various branches of natural philosophy, and particularly in chymistry and mineralogy.’ Among the five fellows who recommended him was Henry Cavendish. He lodged for some time in Bentinck Street, and there probably prepared his first scientific paper, ‘An Account of some Chemical Experiments on Tabasheer,’ read before the Royal Society on 7 July 1791 (Phil. Trans. vol. lxxxi. pt. ii. p. 368). The following year he travelled from Geneva to Italy and in Tyrol. His political views found expression in a letter from Paris: ‘The office of king is not yet abolished, but they daily feel the inutility, or rather the great inconvenience, of continuing it. … May other nations, at the time of their reforms, be wise enough to cast off, at first, the contemptible incumbrance.’

It is not known when he received permission from the crown to change his name, but in 1794, eight years after his father's death, he is mentioned in the will of his half-sister, Dorothy Percy, as Macie. She was also an illegitimate daughter of the duke, and died on 2 Nov. 1794 (Chester, Registers of Westminster, p. 453). The first public announcement of the name of Smithson is in the second 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 estate, valued at about 100,000l. Acceptance of the gift was opposed in Congress, but, through the influence of John Quincy Adams, Richard Rush was sent to England to enter a suit in the name of the president of the United States. A decision was given within two years, and the sum of 104,960l. in gold was delivered at the Philadelphia mint. In 1867, inclusive of a residuary legacy, the total amount of the bequest had increased to six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The Smithsonian Institution was established by act of Congress, approved on 10 Aug. 1846, and the first meeting of the board of regents took place on 7 Sept. in the same year. Joseph Henry was the first secretary (1846–78); to him are due the form of the publications, the system of international exchanges, and the weather bureau. Under the second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird (1878–87), the new museum building was erected, and much attention was given to zoological and ethnological explorations. Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, the third and present holder of the office, established the National Zoological Park and the Astrophysical Observatory, and has given great encouragement to the physical as well as the biological sciences. The special work of the bureau of ethnology was begun in 1872. The Smithsonian building is one of the finest in Washington. The library forms part of the congressional library, and comprehends perhaps one-fourth of the national collection. The institution publishes periodically valuable series of scientific publications, entitled respectively ‘Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge’ since 1848, in 4to; ‘Miscellaneous Collections’ since 1862, 8vo; and ‘Annual Reports.’ The ‘Bulletins’ of the National Museum commenced in 1875 and the ‘Proceedings’ in 1878. The ‘Annual Reports’ of the Bureau of Ethnology date from 1878. The Bureau also issues ‘Bulletins.’

Smithson was a man of gentle character whose life was devoted to study uncheered by domestic affection. He had one relaxation. Arago, in the course of his ‘Éloge d'Ampère,‘ without mentioning Smithson by name, says: ‘Je connaissais à Paris, il y a quelques années, un étranger de distinction, à la fois très-riche et très-mal portant, dont les journées, sauf un petit nombre d'heures de repos, étaient régulièrement partagées entre d'intéressantes recherches scientifiques et le jeu’ (Œuvres, 1854, ii. 27). Ampère demonstrated to his friend that, according to the doctrine of chances, he was each year cheated out of a large sum; but Smithson was unable to forego the stimulus of play. His writings are marked by terse and lucid expression, and his theory of work is well illustrated by the noble words found in one of his notebooks, which have been adopted as a motto for the publications of the institution: ‘Every man is a valuable member of society who by his observations, researches, and experiments procures knowledge for men.’ Although he deeply felt the circumstances of his birth, he was proud of his descent, and once wrote: ‘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 this 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.’ One part of this statement has already been realised, and, as the founder of the famous institution which bears his name, he is already illustrious. The position of the Smithsonian Institution is without a parallel in any country.

There is an oil painting representing him as an Oxford student (1786), and a miniature by Johns (1816), both in the possession of the institution. A medallion found among his effects was marked ‘my likeness’ in Smithson's hand; from this have been engraved the portrait published by the institution, the great seal, and the vignette to be seen on all its publications.

[Materials have been kindly contributed by Professor S. P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Mr. G. B. Henderson lent some family documents. See also Smithson and his Bequest, by W. J. Rhees, 1880, and accounts by W. R. Johnson and J. R. McD. Irby of the writings of Smithson, 1879, in Misc. Collections, vol. xxi. 1881; Report of R. Rush to the Department of State, 1838; Gent. Mag. March 1830, p. 275; Goode's Account of the Smithsonian Institution, 1895.]

H. R. T.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.254
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
171 i 11f.e. Smithson, James: for brother read uncle
172 ii 30 after at Genoa, insert The cemetery with Smithson's tomb was demolished by the municipal authorities of Genoa during 1903 in making a city improvement. Smithson's remains were thereupon surrendered to the United States government, and were reinterred in Washington early in 1904.