James Smithson

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James Smithson

James Lewis Smithson (* 1765 in Paris as James Lewis Macie ; † June 27, 1829 in Genoa ) was a British mineralogist and chemist . He became known for his legacy to the United States that was used to fund the Smithsonian Institution .

Live and act

He was the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson , later known as Sir Hugh Percy, Baronet , First Duke of Northumberland , KG , and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate . Elizabeth Keate was the wealthy widow of the late James Macie and a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland. His exact date of birth is unknown because he was secretly born in Paris, where his mother had gone to hide her pregnancy. Therefore, Smithson initially carried the name James Lewis Macie. His mother later married Mark Dickinson , with whom they had another son.

James Lewis Macie graduated from Oxford University. The Duke of Northumberland was responsible for this training. During the semester break he collected minerals and ores. In Oxford he received the impetus for scientific research. James graduated from Pembroke College on May 26, 1786. He was known by this name for 14 years. On April 26, 1787, less than a year after graduating from university, he was appointed a "Fellow of the Royal Society of London".

Smithson was interested in almost everything and studied extensively the phenomena of nature, such as: B. snake poisons, the chemistry of volcanoes, the composition of tears and the fundamental nature of electricity. During his lifetime he published 27 articles, which range from an improved way to brew coffee, to the analysis of the mineral "Calamine" ( calamine ), which is used for the production of sheet handed. His work on zinc ores resulted in the zinc mineral smithsonite being named after him.

When his mother died in 1800, he and his half-brother Henry Louis Dickinson inherited a relatively large estate. Henry embarked on a military career and served on the continent as well as in Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, James took care of the property. The Duke died in 1786 and was succeeded by his son Hugh Smithson, James' half-brother, as 2nd Duke of Northhumberland. After the death of his mother in 1801 he changed his name from "Macie" to "Smithson". James Smithson was never married and had no children.

Foundation stone for the Smithsonian

Smithson died in Genoa on June 27, 1829. In his will he bequeathed his fortune to his nephew, the son of his half-brother. However, he stipulated that if this nephew died without children, whether legitimate or not, the money should go to the United States

"For the purpose of founding an institution at Washington, to be called the Smithsonean Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

"To establish an institution in Washington under the name Smithsonian for the increase and dissemination of knowledge among the people."

His nephew, Henry Hungerford Dickinson, later died without the heirs necessary to the onset of John Smithson's inheritance. In 1836, Smithson's legacy was accepted by the United States Congress . In 1838 a court ruled in favor of the United States in a lawsuit (in Great Britain ) in which the will was challenged. The remaining sum of $ 515,000 was invested in government bonds by the American Congress. There was quite a bit of disagreement about how the legacy should be fulfilled, and it wasn't until 1846 that the Smithsonian Institution was formed. The Smithsonian Institution was established by a law of Congress and signed by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1840.

James Smithson has never been to the United States. The motive for this particular legacy is unknown.


  • Smithson worked as a private scholar, particularly on zinc and lead minerals and on dyes. The mineral smithsonite (zinc spar, ZnCO 3 ) is named after him.
  • The Smithson lunar crater was named after him in 1976.
  • Smithson is the namesake for the Antarctic mountain Mount Smithson .

In 1904, the regent of the Smithsonian, Alexander Graham Bell , brought the remains of James Smithson to the United States, where they were interred in a crypt in the Smithsonian's Information Center ("The Castle"). All his papers and the huge mineral collection were destroyed in a fire in 1865.


  • The scientific writings of James Smithson . Collected from the Royal Society of London. Edited by William J. Rhees. 1879, Textarchiv - Internet Archive
  • The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896. The history of its first half century . Edited by George B. Goode. Publisher: The City of Washington, 1897, Text Archive - Internet Archive


Web links

Commons : James Smithson  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. James Smithson Biography
  2. ^ William Jones Rhees: James Smithson and His Bequest Publisher: Smithsonian institution, Washington 1880
  3. ^ Smithsonite
  4. James Smithson, Esq. FRSThe Gentleman's Magazine , year 1830, p. 276 (online at ANNO ).Template: ANNO / Maintenance / gen
  5. NZZ , January 6, 1850.
  6. ^ William McKinley: Foreword. In: The Executive Mansion , Washington, June 22, 1897, Text Archive - Internet Archive