The Smithsonian Institution was chartered by the U.S. Congress today in 1846 after James Smithson donated his estate to the United States government, which lost the money to poor investment and had to replace it. Now WE know em


James Lewis Macie was born in secret about 1765 in Paris as an illegitimate child, making his exact birth date a mystery.

His mother was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, the widow of wealthy James Macie.

His father is thought to have been Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland.

In 1766, his mother inherited the Hungerfords of Studley, and estate her brother owned up until his death.

James and his wealthy mother lived a nomadic lifestyle, traveling throughout Europe. Eventually he was naturalized in England.

In 1782, James enrolled at Pembroke College, Oxford and graduated in 1786 with a Masters of Arts degree.

His interest was eclectic, ranging from coffee making to the use of calamine in making brass (which would eventually be called smithsonite).

James also studied the chemistry of human tears, snake venom and other natural occurrences.

He was nominated to the Royal Society of London by Henry Cavendish and became a fellow on April 26, 1787.

There, James socialized and worked with scientists such as Joseph Priestly, Sir Joseph Banks and Richard Kirwan.

James happened to be in Paris when the French Revolution began in 1789.

His first published paper, “An Account of some chemical experiments on Tabasheer” was presented at the Royal Society on July 7, 1791.

After the death of his mother in 1801, he changed his last name to Smithson and shared her wealth with his half-brother Henry Louis Dickinson.

Then in 1802, James read his second paper, “A Chemical analysis of some Calamines” at the Royal Society. It was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and was the documented instance of his name, James Smithson.

In this paper, James challenged the idea that the mineral calamine was an oxide of zinc. His discoveries made calamine a “true mineral.”

James would go on to publish at total of 27 papers.

Then in August of 1807, James Smithson became a prisoner of war while in Tönning during the Napoleonic Wars.

He arranged a transfer to Hamburg, where he was again imprisoned, this time by the French.

The following year, James Smithson wrote to Sir Joseph Banks and asked him to use his influence to help set him free.

Banks succeeded and James returned to England.

He then set off to explore and examine Kirkdale Cave, publishing his findings in 1824. His findings successfully challenged previous beliefs that the fossils within the formations at the cave were from the Great Flood. In fact, James Smithson is credited with first using the word “silicates.”

James never married or had children.

Then on June 27, 1829, James Smithson died in Genoa, Italy without ever having visited the United States.

He was buried in Sampierdarena in a Protestant cemetery.

Last Will and Testament

In his will, James Smithson left his fortune to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford.

He had written his last will in 1826, that in the event Hungerford or Hungerford’s children did not live, and had no children to receive the fortune, he would donate it to the United States to found an educational institution he named the Smithsonian Institution.

Well, Henry Hungerford died on June 5, 1835, unmarried and leaving behind no children, thus the United States became the official recipient of James Smithson’s wealth.

The United States was then informed of the bequest when Aaron Vail wrote to Secretary of State John Forsyth.

This information was then passed onto President Andrew Jackson who proceeded to inform Congress of this statement from Smithson’s will:

“I then bequeath the whole of my property, . . . to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”

The Smithsonian Institution

A committee was organized to form the Smithsonian Institution on July 1, 1836.

Smithson’s estate was then sent to the United States, accompanied by American diplomat Richard Rush.

The estate arrived as 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns in eleven boxes on August 8, 1838.

Smithson’s personal items, scientific notes, minerals, and library also traveled with Rush.

The gold was transferred to the U.S. Treasury in Philadelphia where it was minted into $508,318.46.

The final funds from Smithson’s estate were received in 1864 from Marie de la Batut, James Smithson’s nephew’s mother.

This final amount totaled an additional $54,165.38.

Once the money was in hand, eight years of Congressional haggling ensued over how to interpret Smithson’s rather vague mandate “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Unfortunately the money was invested in bonds which soon defaulted.

After heated debate, Massachusetts Representative (and ex-President) John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to restore the lost funds with interest and, despite designs on the money for other purposes, convinced his colleagues to preserve it for an institution of science and learning.

Finally, on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States, to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.


The "Castle" (1867 photo), the Institution's first building and still its headquarters.

The “Castle” (1867 photo), the Institution’s first building and still its headquarters.

James Smithson’s papers and collection of minerals were destroyed in a fire in 1865, however, his collection of 213 books remain intact at the Smithsonian.


The Board of Regents acquired a portrait of Smithson (photo above), which shows Smithson dressed in Oxford University student attire. The painting, by James Roberts, is now on display in the crypt at the Smithsonian Castle.

The original draft of Smithson’s will was acquired in 1877, which now reside in the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Institution Archives, respectively.

Additional items were acquired from Smithson’s relatives in 1878.

Relocation of Smithson’s remains to Washington

Smithson was buried just outside of Genoa, Italy.

James Smithson's Italian grave site, 1896

James Smithson’s Italian grave site, 1896

The United States consul in Genoa was asked to maintain the grave site, with sponsorship for its maintenance coming from the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley visited the site, contributing further money to maintain it and requested a plaque be designed for the grave site. Three plaques were created by William Ordway Partridge. One was placed at the grave site, a second at a Protestant chapel in Genoa, and the last was gifted to Pembroke College, Oxford. Only one of the plaques exists today.

The plaque at the grave site was stolen and then replaced with a marble version. During World War II, the Protestant chapel was destroyed and the plaque was looted. A copy was eventually placed at the site in 1963.

The grave site itself was going to be relocated in 1905, and in response, Alexander Graham Bell, who was a regent for the Smithsonian, requested that Smithson’s remains be moved to the Smithsonian Institution Building.

In 1903, Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, traveled to Genoa to exhume Smithson’s body. The body set sail from Genoa on January 7, 1904 and arrived on January 20.

On January 25, a ceremony was held and the body was escorted through Washington, D.C. by the United States Cavalry.

When handing over the remains to the Smithsonian, Alexander Graham Bell stated:

“And now… my mission is ended and I deliver into your hands … the remains of this great benefactor of the United States.”

The coffin then lay in state in the Board of Regents’ room, where objects from Smithson’s personal collection were on display.


After the arrival of Smithson’s remains, the Board of Regents asked Congress to fund a memorial. Artists and architects were solicited to create proposals for the monument. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Louis Saint-Gaudens, Gutzon Borglum, Totten & Rogers, Henry Bacon, and Hornblower & Marshall were some of the many artists and architectural firms who submitted proposals. The proposals varied in design, from elaborate monumental tombs that, if built, would have been bigger than the Lincoln Memorial, to smaller monuments just outside the Smithsonian Castle. Congress decided not to fund the memorial. To accommodate the fact that the Smithsonian would have to fund the memorial, they used the design of Gutzon Borglum, which suggested a remodel of the south tower room of the Smithsonian Castle to house the memorial surrounded by four Corinthian columns and a vaulted ceiling. Instead of the tower room, a smaller room at the north entrance, which was a children’s museum, would house an Italian-style sarcophagus.

On December 8, 1904, the Italian crypt was shipped, in sixteen crates from Italy. It traveled on the same ship that the remains of Smithson traveled on. Architecture firm Hornblower & Marshall designed the mortuary chapel, which included marble laurel wreaths and a neo-classical design. Smithson was entombed on March 6, 1905. His casket, which had been held in the Regent’s Room, was carried down the spiral staircase of the Castle and placed into the ground underneath the crypt. This chapel was to serve as a temporary space for Smithson’s remains until Congress approved a larger memorial. However, that never happened, and the remains of Smithson still lie there today.

Now WE know em


James Smithson's crypt in Washington

James Smithson’s crypt in Washington




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