Commemoration of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary—being celebrated in August 2021—with a story about its enigmatic founder, James Smithson.
Note: I have worked at the Smithsonian for over 26 years.
For this talk, I will directly quote from Smithsonian online resources.
So, “THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.” When most people hear the name; museums,
scientific research, even Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the Wright brothers’ plane come to mind.
But many don’t know how, or for that matter, who created the Smithsonian. The Institution is
now 175 years old, but its true beginning happened over 250 years ago with Smithson’s birth.
James Smithson was an English chemist and mineralogist. He was the illegitimate son of Hugh
Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and the wealthy widow Elizabeth Hungerford
Keate Macie. His exact birthday [in 1765] remains a mystery because he was born secretly in
Paris, where his mother had gone to hide her pregnancy. He was born James Lewis Macie, but
in 1801, after his parents died, he took his father’s last name of Smithson.
Smithson never married; he had no children; and he lived somewhat as a gentleman nomad,
traveling widely in Europe during a time of great turbulence and political upheaval. He was in
Paris during the French Revolution and was later imprisoned in the early 19th century during
the Napoleonic Wars.
Friends with many of the great scientific minds of the time, he believed that the pursuit of
science and knowledge was the key to happiness and prosperity for all of society. He saw
scientists as benefactors of all mankind and thought they should be considered “citizens of the
[Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson said,] “Science wasn’t just an interest of Smithson’s, he
was a dedicated and hard-working student of the topic too. He studied at Pembroke College,
Oxford, and received a master’s degree in science. He was considered a “swot”—someone, who
unlike most other gentlemen, stayed on campus all semester and worked incredibly hard. He
was inducted into the Royal Society in 1787 after graduation, the youngest member at that
He published 27 papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee, to
an analysis of the mineral calamine?critical in the manufacture of brass, which led to the
mineral being named smithsonite in his honor. In one of his last papers, he laid out his
philosophy most clearly: “It is in his knowledge that man has found his greatness and his
Toward the end of his life, under a clause in his will [if he died without living heirs], he left his
fortune to the United States. It was to be used to found “an establishment for the increase and
diffusion of knowledge [among men]” in Washington, DC, and it was to be named the
Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, had traveled much during his life, but
had never once set foot on American soil. Why, then, would he decide to give the entirety of his
sizable estate—which totaled [about] 1/66th of the United States’ entire federal budget at the
time—to a country that was foreign to him?
Some speculate it was because he was denied his father's legacy. Others argue that he was
inspired by the nation’s experiment with democracy. Some attribute his philanthropy to ideals
inspired by such organizations as the Royal Institution, which was dedicated to using scientific
knowledge to improve human conditions. Smithson never wrote about or discussed his bequest
with friends or colleagues, so we are left to speculate on the ideals and motivations of a gift
that has had such [a] significant impact on the arts, humanities, and sciences in the United
Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, and was interred nearby. It took nearly a
decade for his bequest to arrive in America in the form of 11 boxes of more than 100,000 gold
sovereigns. [Recoined at the Philadelphia Mint in US currency, the gift amounted to more than
$500,000, or about 15 million in today’s dollars.]
Initially, most Americans assumed that Smithson intended to found a university, so the debates
centered on what type of school. Gradually other ideas were introduced—an observatory, a
scientific research institute, a national library, a publishing house, or a museum. The
Smithsonian’s enabling act was a compromise among these ideas, leaving out only the
After eight years of sometimes heated debate, an Act of Congress signed by President James K.
Polk on Aug. 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution…as a federal establishment, not
part of the three branches of government, managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Regents.
[The Board of Regents consists of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Vice President of
the US, six members of Congress (three Senate, three House), and nine private citizens. The first
group of] Smithsonian Regents had to decide how to carry out Smithson’s vague mandate and
the broad legislation. Their first act was to build a home for the Institution, a Norman-
style “Castle” designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., located on the new National Mall in
And James Smithson finally did visit America, albeit posthumously. In 1904, [famous inventor]
Alexander Graham Bell, a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, brought Smithson’s
remains to the US to rest at the Institution his gift created. His tomb rests just inside the
entrance of the Smithsonian Castle, so that it is the first thing many visitors see as they begin
their visit?a fitting start to exploring the Smithsonian.
Although Smithson’s papers and his vast mineral collection were all destroyed by fire in 1865,
the story of his life and work has been largely recovered in the recent biography, The Lost
World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, by Heather
Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 21 museums (including two just added by Congress),
nine research centers, a library, archives, and the National Zoo. We steward more than 155
million objects in the national collections reflecting our cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage.
We also provide education and outreach programs in science, history, art, and culture for
visitors and scholars worldwide.
This talk directly quotes published excerpts from the Smithsonian’s website, including:
Our History | Smithsonian Institution (si.edu);
For more info, please visit: The Smithsonian at 175 | Smithsonian Institution (si.edu)
James Smithson in 1816. Portrait by French artist Henri-Joseph Johns (1761 – 1843).
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, NPG.85.44, Smithsonian Institution.
Strolling on the Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building [Castle], c. 1849, by
Unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 30, Folder: 4A.
deliveryService (2000×1334) (si.edu)
Smithsonian Institution Building [upper left] and The Mall, c. 1855, by Unknown. Courtesy of
the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 67, Folder: 2 and Record Unit 95, Box
30, Folder: 7. deliveryService (2000×1231) (si.edu)
Balloon view of Washington, DC, with Capitol (with unfinished dome in front left) and Smithsonian
Castle (circled in upper middle), May 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and
Photographs Division. Balloon view of Washington, D.C., May 1861 | Library of Congress (loc.gov).
[Note that the Washington Memorial was incomplete, the Potomac River had not yet been dredged
behind it, and there was a canal running along what is now Constitution Avenue NW.]