James Smithson

Benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution

By Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Smithsonian Building - "The Castle"

James Smithson Portrait - National Portrait Gallery, Henri-Joseph Johns, 1816, From the collection of: Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle
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James Smithson (1765-1829), founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, was born in 1765 in France with the name James Lewis Macie.

VIew of Hillside Town of Bath (1878)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

His mother lived near the City of Bath, seen here from a hilltop in 1768 with the River Avon flowing on the right. Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, was from the nearby town of Weston and Mrs. Macie in 1761 enjoyed the freedom of widowhood and the elaborate social life of Bath. Bath was the favorite playground in England for the upper class. It is suspected that this is where she met and had an affair with Sir Hugh Smithson. The affair led to the birth c. 1765 of James Smithson who would one day leave his estate to the U.S. government for the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Roman Baths in Bath, England.

Pembroke College Oxford, Quad (1870) by Smillie, T. W (Thomas William)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

After living in both France and England, on May 7, 1782, Smithsonian enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford.

James Smithson as a Student at Pembroke College Oxfore-mah-10614.jpg (1870) by T.W. (Thomas William) SmillieSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

In this James Roberts (1753 - c.1809) painting, Smithson is wearing his university robes. He attended Pembroke College from 1782 to 1786, studying geology and mineralogy.

James Smithson's Room at Pembroke College, Oxford (1894)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

James Smithson’s Room at Pembroke College, Oxford.

James Smithson's Mineral Catalog-SIA2013-07891 (1800) by James SmithsonSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

The natural sciences sparked his interest, and he established a solid reputation as a chemist and mineralogist, during the exciting period when chemistry was being developed as a new science in the late 1700s. Committed to discovering the basic elements, he worked diligently to collect mineral and ore samples from European countries.

- James Smithson's Mineral Catalog

Under the name of James Lewis Macie, James Smithson is admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London on April 26, 1787. His recommendation states that he is a gentleman well versed in various branches of Natural Philosophy, and particularly in Chemistry and Mineralogy. Smithson was nominated for membership by his good friend, Henry Cavendish, and four other scientists.

- The Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, London

James Smithson's 1st Scientific Paper (1791-07-07) by Royal Society of London and James SmithsonSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Excerpts from his notes show that his field excursions often forced him to brave the elements and do without the upper class comforts known to his parents. Smithson, although a wealthy man, was determined to make a name for himself among scientists. He kept accurate records of his experiments and collections, and his publications earned the respect of his peers.

- Smithson's first paper (1791) was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume LXXXI, part 2, p. 368. The paper details his many experiments on tabasheer, a substance found in bamboo.

James Smithson's Handwritten Will pages 1 and 3 (1826) by James SmithsonSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

James Smithson wrote a draft of his Last Will and Testament in 1826 in London, only three years before his death.

- Hand written draft of Smithson's will, pages 1 and 3

James Smithson's Tomb in Genoa, Italy-82-3195.jpg (1897) by Prematio Studio Fotographico (Genova, Italy)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Smithson died on June 27, 1829, in Genoa, Italy, where he was buried in a British cemetery.

- Memorial plaque and the monument of James Smithson in the Protestant or English cemetery on a hilltop near Genoa, Italy, overlooking the town of Sampierdarena.

James Smithson Handwritten Will pages 2 and 4 (1826) by James SmithsonSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

The will left his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, and stated that if his nephew died without an heir, the money would go "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 ...." His nephew did indeed die without an heir, and Smithson's estate eventually did come to the United States where a debate would begin about what this new institution would be.

- Smithson's Will, pages 2 and 4. The final version was written on October 23, 1826 and accepted by the court on November 4, 1829.

"The Mediator" - from Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, VA (1855) by Richard Rush and -Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

First, Richard Rush, an attorney from Philadelphia, filed a lawsuit in London to get the Smithson estate for the United States. In just two years, Rush won a judgment for the United States, disposed of Smithson's properties, and converted the proceeds to gold sovereigns.

When the estate was delivered to the US Mint in Philadelphia in September 1838, it totaled $508,318.46.

- "The Mediator" transported Richard Rush with James Smithson's legacy, in the form of gold sovereigns packed in eleven boxes, as well as his personal effects including his mineral cabinet, library, and scientific writings, across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship arrived in New York harbor on August 29, 1838, and the personal effects were deposited with the collector of the Port of New York on September 1.

Painting from the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, VA.

James Smithson Carte de Visite front - Smithsonian Institution Archives, James Smithson, 1826, From the collection of: Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle
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The National Institute for the Promotion of Science acquired James Smithson’s personal effects, displaying them in the National Gallery of the Patent Office beginning in 1842.

James Smithson Carte de Visite back (Smithsonian Institution Archives), James Smithson, 1826, From the collection of: Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle
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John Varden, the collection’s keeper, apparently helped himself to a supply of Smithson’s calling cards. Varden gave this one to Caleb Bentley, a Quaker silversmith, shopkeeper, and postmaster of Brookeville, Maryland—and a contributor to Varden’s Washington Museum. Varden’s gift to Bentley went unrecorded until 1892, when the card came back to the Smithsonian with an inscription that noted its diversion.

Act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, August 10, 1846 (1846-08-10)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Congressional debates regarding Smithson's bequest continued until 1846 when legislation was passed creating the Smithsonian Institution.

- Act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, August 10, 1846.

Smithsonian Institution Building seen from across National Mall in 1855 (1855)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

By 1855, the Smithsonian had it's first building on the National Mall. The Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the "Castle," was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr. The building is constructed of red sandstone from Seneca Creek, Maryland, in the Norman style (a 12th-century combination of late Romanesque and early Gothic motifs). When it was completed in 1855, it sat on an isolated piece of land cut off from downtown Washington, DC, by a canal.

In the ensuing decades, the Castle became the anchor for the National Mall, as additional museums and government buildings were constructed around it.

Smithsonian Castle Burning (1865) by Alexander GardnerSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Unfortunately, a fire in the Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle in 1865 destroyed many of the Smithson letters, diaries, and other papers originally acquired by the Institution. As a result of the fire, the Smithsonian Institution Archives does not have very many of James Smithson's original letters or other papers.

- This photograph was taken and heavily retouched by Alexander Gardner, who painted flames on the photographic print.

Books from James Smithson's Library (1817/1820)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Among those that the Smithsonian Institution Archives does have are a handwritten draft of Smithson's Last Will and Testament, dated October 23, 1826, and these books from his personal library.

Although Smithson's remains were initially intered in 1829 in Genoa, Italy, at the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Ghost, an Anglican church located about a mile from the cemetery, they eventually came to the States.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents was notified that the expansion of a nearby quarry would impact the cemetery. In December of 1903 they adopted a resolution appointing Regent Alexander Graham Bell to take charge of relocating Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington.

Mr. Bell and his wife traveled to Genoa later that same month, and with Consul Bishop's assistance in making arrangements, disinterred Smithson's remains. They transferred them from a wooden coffin to a metal casket and placed it in the cemetery's mortuary chapel until January 2, 1904, when the casket was enclosed in a coffin of strong wood and covered with the American flag.

- On the south wall of this church there is a marble memorial plaque dedicated to James Smithson, carved by Romanelli of Florence and installed in 1963. It replaced a bronze version that disappeared after Allied bombing during World War II. The church was gutted by fire and many artifacts were lost.

Genoa with San Benigno hill its walls and barracks end of 19th century (1890/1900) by Detroit Publishing Co.Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

The English Cemetery was located near the barracks (large red building) on the heights of San Benigno, above the slate quarries in this late 1800s photo, looking from Genoa toward the Lighthouse. Much of the ridge was leveled in the 1930s.

Steamship Princess Irene (1904-01) by Mabel BellSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Seen here in the harbour at Genoa, Italy in January 1904, the steamship Princess Irene prepares to sail for New York on January 7, carrying Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel, who took the photo, along with James Smithson's remains.

Los Angeles Herald, Number 110, 17 January 1904 - Smithson's Remains to US (1904-01-17) by Los Angeles HeraldSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Los Angeles Herald, January 17, 1904

United States Steamer Will Meet the Princess Irene
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 --The United States steamship Dolphin left the Washington navy yard today for New York, to receive the remains of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institute, which are on the steamer Prinzess Irene from Genoa, due at New York on the 20th inst.
The Dolphin will meet the merchant ship down the bay and escort her to her dock, where the remains of the distinguished philanthropist will be transferred to the naval vessel and brought to this city for final interment, in accordance with the plans of the officers of the Smithsonian Institution.

Regents' Room with James Smithson's Coffin (1904)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Upon arrival in Washington, Smithson's casket was placed in the Regents' Room, South Tower of the "Castle," before its transfer to the Crypt at the North Entrance.

An exhibit of Smithson memorabilia can be seen in cases along the wall. Also visible in the Regents' Room is a fireplace designed by Hornlower and Marshall, flanked by chairs designed by James Renwick.

James Smithson's Grave Marker (1829)Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

James Smithson's sarcophagus shaped marble monument had been packed in 16 crates and shipped from Italy in December, 1904. It was reassembled and placed in the North Entrance of the Castle, where it can be seen today.

The monument is as much an object of veneration as one of curiosity.

Many read the inscription

Sacred to the Memory of James Smithson Esq.
Fellow of the Royal Society London,
who died at Genoa
the 26th June 1829.
Aged 75 years.

but few people today understand the symbolic language of the marker's very shape and its decoration.

Although Smithson's monument was designed in the shape of a sarcophagus, an ancient funerary form constructed to hold the earthly remains of the deceased, it was not his repository. It was merely a grandiose marker for the grave below.

When the marker was installed in the Crypt in 1905, a red Tennessee marble base was built beneath it to house the coffin.

The plaque on the base reads

James Smithson, Founder of the Smithsonian Institution, who died at Genoa Italy June 26, 1829. These his remains were brought to the United States in 1904 for reinterment in the care of the Institution he founded.

The massive urn is supported on platforms carved in the shape of lions' feet. The lion represents strength, and its paws were decorative devices on chairs and thrones in both ancient Egypt and Greece.

Large central medallions, comprised of a moth inside a laurel wreath, decorated with laurel branches and festooned with ribbon, are carved into the front and back of the marker. Moths, having "died" as caterpillars, represent new life after death. In classical times, the long-lasting laurel leaf fashioned into a wreath signified achievement, victory, and eternity while laurel branches with foliage generally represent the Tree of Life.

A coved frieze is carved with (l-r) a bird, a laurel branch, a serpent, a scallop shell, another serpent, an ambiguous symbol that may represent a mineral, and a moth.

The bird represents flight, particularly that of a soul ascending to Heaven. To the ancients, the serpent was an object of veneration, as a repository of great wisdom and power. The scallop shell was a favorite decorative device of the Greeks and Romans, who associated it with the sea, and thus with eternity and rebirth.

The marker is capped with a pine cone finial which symbolizes regeneration. This is particularly apt given that Smithson's bequest to America has borne fruit a thousand times over in its mandate for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

James Smithson Memorial Plaque (1896) by Neil Greentree - Photographer and William Ordway Partridge - DesignerSmithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

The memorial plaque at the original Italian grave site was later stolen and replaced with a facsimile of Carrara marble in 1900. That plaque was brought to Washington, D.C., in 1904, when Smithson's remains were moved to the Smithsonian and is still in the Crypt Room of the Smithsonian Castle today; a fitting commemoration to the Institution's benefactor.

The Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum and research complex—includes 19 museums and galleries (10 seen here on the National Mall in Washington, DC) and the National Zoological Park.

These free public spaces are the blossoms on the Tree of Knowledge that sprouted from the amazing bequest of James Smithson.

Credits: Story

Compiled by
Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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