James Smithson Dies

British scientist James Smithson died on June 27, 1829.

He left an endowment "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Some regarded his bequest as a trifle eccentric, considering Smithson had neither traveled to nor corresponded with anyone in America.

A fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of twenty-two, Smithson published numerous scientific papers on mineralogy, geology, and chemistry. He proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides; one calamine (a type of zinc carbonate) was renamed "smithsonite" posthumously in his honor.

An act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution. After considering a series of recommendations, which included the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the $508,318 bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, educational outreach, and collection in the natural and applied sciences, arts, and history.

Not much is known about Smithson's life: his scientific collections, notebooks, diaries, and correspondence were lost in a fire that destroyed the Smithsonian Institution Building in 1865; only the 213 volumes of his personal library and some personal writings survived. Smithson was born in 1765 in Paris, France, an illegitimate, unacknowledged son of an English landowner, the highly regarded and accomplished Sir Hugh Smithson, 4th Baronet of Stanwick, north Yorkshire, who later changed his name to Hugh Percy, and became the 1st Duke of Northumberland, K.G..

James Smithson's mother was his father's mistress, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, the daughter of John Keate, an uncle of George Keate (1729–1797) who was elected to the Royal Society in 1766. Elizabeth was the widow of John Macie, of Weston, near Bath, Somerset; so the young Smithson originally was called Jacques Louis Macie. His mother later married John Marshe Dickinson, a troubled son of Marshe Dickinson who was Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1757 and Member of Parliament. During this marriage, she had another son; but the 1st Duke of Northumberland, rather than Dickinson, is thought to have been the father of this second son also.