Wednesday, August 10, 2011

James Smithson

“I helped Will Holmes draw barley all day and we got their barley all in except the rakings.  Has been a very warm day.”

An 1816 portrait of Smithson by Henri-Joseph Johns, now in the National Portrait Gallery
of the Smithsonian Institution
James Smithson, FRS, M.A. (1764 – 27 June 1829) was a British mineralogist and chemist noted for having left a bequest in his will to the United States of America, to create "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" to be called the Smithsonian Institution
Not much is known about Smithson's life: his scientific collections, notebooks, diaries, and correspondence were lost in a fire that destroyed the Smithsonian Institution Building in 1865; only the 213 volumes of his personal library and some personal writings survived. Smithson was born Jacques Louis Macie on an unknown date early in 1764, in Paris, France, an illegitimate, unacknowledged son of an English landowner, the highly regarded and accomplished Sir Hugh Smithson, 4th Baronet of Stanwick, north Yorkshire, who had married into the Percy family. In 1766 he became 1st Duke of Northumberland, K.G.
James Smithson's mother was his father's mistress, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, the daughter of John Keate, an uncle of George Keate (1729–1797) who was elected to the Royal Society in 1766. Elizabeth was an heiress of the Hungerfords of Studley. She was also the widow of John Macie, of Weston, near Bath, Somerset; so the young Smithson originally was called Jacques Louis Macie. His mother later married John Marshe Dickinson, a troubled son of Marshe Dickinson who was Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1757 and Member of Parliament. During this marriage, she had another son; but the 1st Duke of Northumberland, rather than Dickinson, is thought to have been the father of this second son also.

A portrait of Smithson at the University of Oxford c.1786 by an unknown artist, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithson commenced undergraduate studies at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, in 1782 and received a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in 1786 (he matriculated as Jacobus Ludovicus Macie). French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond described him as a diligent young student, dedicated to scientific research, who had risked drowning to gather geological observations on a tour of the Hebrides Islands.
On 19 April 1787, at age 22, under the name James Lewis Macie, he was elected the youngest fellow of the Royal Society. When his mother died, in 1800, he and his brother inherited a sizable estate. He immediately began the process to change his surname from Macie to his father's surname, Smithson.
Smithson died on 27 June 1829, in Genoa; his body was buried in the English cemetery of San Benigno there. In 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, then Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, brought Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington, D.C., where they were entombed at the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle). His sarcophagus incorrectly states his age at his death as 75; he was around 65.
The Smithsonian Institution archives has amassed some materials related to him.

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