An English scientist named
James Lewis Macie created a controversy in Washington, D.C., that
eventually had a very positive effect on America. This is the story
of Macie's contribution to science and history.
James Macie was born to Sir Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate.
The problem, though, was that his parents were not married. Well,
not to each other anyway. Elizabeth was married to James Macie, so
she named her illegitimate son after her husband, even though the
boy's biological father was Hugh Smithson.
As a scientist, Macie conducted research in chemistry, mineralogy
and geology. His work on calamines, which he presented to England's
Royal Society, resulted in having a carbonate of zinc renamed in his
honor, back in 1832. There is also something else far more important
and more recognizable that is named in his honor.
First, it might help if you know that James Macie changed his
birth name to his biological father's last name of Smithson when his
mother died. The carbonate of zinc that is renamed in his honor is
known as smithsonite.
What was James Smithson's contribution to the world of science
and history -- the one that bears the name of this scientist who
never once stepped foot in America while he was alive?
The Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson bequeathed 11 boxes of gold sovereigns (coins)
worth $508,318 to the United States to form what became the
Smithsonian Institution. There was a catch, though.
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Smithson, who had no children of his own, bequeathed his money to his
nephew, Henry Hungerford Dickerson, on the condition that if Dickerson
didn't have any children, he was to donate the money "to the United
States of America, to found at Washington an establishment for the
increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." If his nephew had any
children, then the money would go to them.
Smithson's nephew died without heirs in 1835, and Congress
accepted the gift the following year. A lawsuit in England followed,
but the British court ruled that the money should go to America as
Smithson had requested. After eight years of debate in Congress over
what the Smithsonian should be, the Smithsonian Institution was
formed in 1846.
When Smithson died in 1829, he was buried in Genoa, Italy.
Alexander Graham Bell, who was the Smithsonian's regent in 1904,
brought his body to America and had him entombed in the Smithsonian
Building. Today the Smithsonian Institution, which is the world's
largest museum complex, consists of 16 museums, plus a number of
research centers and libraries.
So why would James Smithson, a man who had never been to America
and had no known connections to America, leave his fortune to
America to build the Smithsonian?
To this day, it remains a mystery. No one, other than James
Smithson himself, knew why. I guess you could say that the answer
lies somewhere in the Smithsonian.
Paul Niemann may be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2007
[Text from file received
from Paul Niemann]