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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

British scientist left mysterious mark in Washington

By Paul Niemann

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[June 25, 2009]  Back in the 1800s, English scientist James Lewis Macie created a controversy in our nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Or as the locals derisively call it, "The Land of Taxation Without Representation." Ah, those locals are so clever with their nicknames.

DonutsMacie's controversy had a very positive effect on American science and history, though.

As a scientist, he conducted research in mineralogy, geology and chemistry. 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. But there is something else far more important and more recognizable that is named in his honor.

First, it might help if you know something about his family background.

James Lewis Macie was born to Sir Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate in Paris in 1765. His parents were not married -- well, not to each other anyway. Elizabeth was married to a man named James Macie.


The scientist 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.

But smithsonite is not James Smithson's main contribution to the world of science and history here in America. The more prominent contribution here also bears his name -- even though he never once stepped foot in America.

It is 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 the money to his nephew, Henry Hungerford Dickerson, on the condition that if the nephew 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's column has appeared in more than 80 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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