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On this day in history in 1829, died James Smithson.
Smithson was the illegitimate son of an aristocrat who became the leading mineralogist of his time and founded the Smithsonian Institution.
Smithson was the natural son of Hugh Smithson Percy, First Duke of Northumberland and Elizabeth Macie, a descendant of Henry VII. His original name was James Lewis Macie but he changed his name on his mother’s death. Smithson was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford where he took an M.A. in 1786. The following year, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on the recommendation of Henry Cavendish.
During his scientific career, Smithson published 27 papers including topics on the chemical constituents of teardrops, the crystalline form of ice and the exact technique for making coffee. Smithson proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonates and not oxides as previously thought. Carbonate of zinc is now called smithsonite in his honour.
Smithson died in 1829, in the city of Genoa and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. He left his fortune to the United States ‘to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institute, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.’ It is believed that Smithson wanted to create an institution that would outlive the honours of the Northumberlands whose title he could not inherit due to his illegitimate birth.
In 1838, Smithson’s fortune was converted to cash. It realised £100,000 in gold sovereigns, which was despatched to Philadelphia in 11 bullion boxes, to be minted into dollar coinage. These funds created the Smithsonian Institute.
In 1904, Smithson’s body was removed from Genoa and taken under escort, by Alexander Graham Bell, regent of the Smithsonian, to be buried in the Smithsonian building.
Ewing, Heather. The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian., Nina. The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian.
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