James Smithson’s Last Will

James Smithson

James Smithson

On June 27, 1829, English chemist and mineralogist James Smithson passed away, whose bequest of substantial funds in his will established the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”, despite having never visited the United States.

James Smithson was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford and earned his Master’s degree in 1786. Smithson traveled throughout Europe and participated in geological expeditions with Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, William Thornton and Paolo Andreani of Scotland and the Hebrides. During the French Revolution, Smithson was in France and became a prisoner of war while in Tönning during the Napoleonic Wars.

James Smithson was active in a great variety of scientific fields. For instance, he studied subjects ranging from coffee making to the use of calamine, eventually renamed smithsonite, in making brass. He was nominated to the Royal Society of London by Henry Cavendish and was made a fellow in 1787 and worked with scientists Joseph Priestley, Sir Joseph Banks, Antoine Lavoisier, and Richard Kirwan. In 1802, Smithson published the paper “A Chemical Analysis of Some Calamines”, challenging the idea that the mineral calamine is an oxide of zinc, thus making calamine a ‘true mineral’.

On 27 June 1829, James Smithson died and in his will, he left his fortune to his nephew, Henry James Dickenson. In the will, written two years before Smithson’s death, the scientist stated that if his relative did not live, it would be donated to the United States to have an educational institution called the Smithsonian Institution founded, even though Smithson had never visited the United States before. Henry Hungerford died on 5 June 1835, unmarried and leaving behind no children, and the United States was the recipient.

After hearing of the donation in 1835, President Andrew Jackson then informed Congress and a committee was organized and the Smithsonian Institution was founded. The will included gold sovereigns in eleven boxes as well as Smithson’s personal items, scientific notes, minerals, and library. Although Smithson’s papers and collection of minerals were destroyed in a fire in 1865, his collection of 213 books remains intact at the Smithsonian.

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