In 1765, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie fled from England to Paris to give birth to a baby boy. The child, originally named Jacques-Louis Macie, was the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland. The child’s birth was twinged with even more scandal as Elizabeth was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland.
What kind of future would this child have? Well, the truth is – that young Jacques-Louis, later anglicized to James Macie, would grow up to not only become an accomplished scientist, chemist and mineralogist, but would also become world famous.
Following the death of his parents, James felt it was time to take the last name of his biological father, Hugh Smithson aka the Duke of Northumberland.
As a young man growing up during the Age of Enlightenment, James had a natural curiosity and a belief in the rights of mankind, liberty, equality and justice which led him to become a Freemason.
James Smithson traveled widely throughout Europe and was living in Paris during the French Revolution and was even imprisoned for over two years during the Napoleonic Wars. Gravitating towards science, young Smithson counted scholars and scientists among his friends and colleagues. At the cornerstone of his beliefs was that scientists should be considered “citizens of the world.”
Smithson was personally intrigued by every aspect of nature and science. While he published 27 scientific papers in the Royal Society of London during his life, each day included hours spent on discovering and investigating the science of the smallest phenomena – from a formula to brew the perfect cup of coffee to the chemical composition of a teardrop falling from a human eye.
Among his scientific discoveries was an analysis of a mineral known as calamine which became used primarily in the manufacturing of brass. His findings were honored by naming the mineral “Smithsonite”.
James Smithson devoted his life to his scientific investigations. He never married nor sired children. When he wrote his will in his later years, he bequeathed his considerable fortune and “worldly goods” to a nephew. However, his will stated that if the nephew died without an heir, that all of his entire fortune was to be be given to the United States of America and be used to found the “Smithsonian Institution” in Washington, D.C. The terms of Smithson’s will dictated that this institute would be “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
This generous gift was most astounding considering that James Smithson had never set foot in America! In 1846, U.S. President James K. Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act to acknowledge and fulfill the wishes of James Smithson even though the question of why the noted scientist chose America as his beneficiary remains a mystery to this day. Smithson’s gift was the equivalent of 15 million dollars.
Upon Smithson’s death in Italy in 1829, his remains were buried in Genoa. However, 75 years later, another Freemason and scientist, Alexander Graham Bell, traveled to Genoa to oversee exhumation of James Smithson’s remains. Bell, who served as a Smithsonian Regent, not only had the remains exhumed, he also documented and his wife, Mabel, photographed the exhumation process and the skull of James Smithson and made scientific notations before bringing the remains to America for internment within the Smithsonian Institution. The images of the exhumation and remains are part of the collection in the Library of Congress, donated by Alexander Graham Bell’s son-in-law, Dr Gilbert Grosvenor.
Today, the Smithsonian is not only recognized as a national treasure, it has served as inspiration for generations who, like Smithson, have minds that are curious. From the founding of the Smithsonian, the Institute has expanded to include 20 separate museums and the National Zoo. Together, the museums account for nearly 150 million objects from mineral specimens, to displays of the gowns of America’s First Ladies to priceless works of art. More than 25 million people visit the Smithsonian museums each year.
In his final years of life, James Smithson penned his personal philosophy, “It is in his knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness.”