Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Lost World of James Smithson

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As a nearly life-long resident of the West Coast, I have visited the Smithsonian Institution exactly once in my entire life, and to be honest, I didn’t notice the bust of its founder, James Smithson. I suppose I should feel guilty about that but, according to what I have read, his bust is located across the street from the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. At that time, this area was not included in my Smithsonian-seeking trajectory. However, after visiting the Smithsonian Institution and experiencing a behind-the-scenes tour of one of its ornithology labs, I have since wondered about the founder of this wonderful place, James Smithson. Who was he? Why isn’t he celebrated as a national hero? The book, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (NYC: Bloomsbury; 2007) by Heather Ewing explores the life and times of Smithson by relying on letters and diaries written by those who knew him best; his friends and family.

Shortly after it was established, the Smithsonian Institution obtained all of Smithson’s letters, diaries and scientific collections, but they were destroyed in a fire in 1865 before any serious scholarship could be done. So almost one hundred and fifty years later, Ewing, an architectural historian who worked at the Smithsonian, decided to learn more about its enigmatic founder. To do this, Ewing traveled throughout Europe, collecting and analyzing unpublished diaries, letters and even bank records that were archived there. In doing so, the author presents a compelling story of an exuberant eccentric with a love of science.

Smithson was born Jacques Louis Macie, an illegitimate son to Elizabeth Macie (Percy) in Paris in either 1764 or 1765. His mother was the mistress to Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, who was most probably his father. Even though he never met his father, when he was approximately 35, Macie formally changed his name to Smithson, thereby making public his parentage — which was already well-known among his peers. It was Smithson’s ambition that his name change would grant him a little more respect as he gallivanted throughout Europe.

Even though many aspects of his life remain mysterious, it is well-known that Smithson pursued scientific studies with great passion from a young age throughout his entire life, especially chemistry and mineralogy. His colleagues were so impressed with his skill and diligence that, by the time he was just 22 years old, he was officially recognized by being named a fellow in the Royal Society of London — he was the youngest member of this esteemed group. Additionally, his colleagues were quite enchanted by him, so Smithson was a well-liked man who enjoyed good personal relationships with many of the famous scientists of his time. As a result, the book is a very interesting history of science in the late nineteenth century, when it was undergoing a rapid transformation.

The book does a good job of documenting his development as a “gentleman-scientist” by describing his schooling, especially his study of chemistry at Oxford in the 1780s. The author follows Smithson’s budding career through the Coffee House Philosophical Society, where learned men discussed scientific news, and also describes the contents of some of Smithson’s well-received scientific papers. But Smithson’s interests did not end there. At various times during his life, he was also an inveterate and lifelong gambler, he was suspected to be a spy, and he was a radical revolutionary during the Napoleonic Wars.

Even though Smithson was a well-recognized scientist in his times, he actually spent his entire life augmenting the storehouse of knowledge of the natural world but made no groundbreaking discoveries himself. And probably frustrating for him, especially considering his beginnings, Smithson craved to be famous. “My name will live on in the memory of men when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys [his mother’s relatives] are extinct or forgotten” he once promised [p. 296].

In the last two chapters of the book, Ewing discusses the philosophies and actions of several other scientists of the time, at least some of whom believed that there was no better use for a man’s wealth than the promostion of science. Perhaps this philosophy inspired Smithson? Anyway, as a result, Smithson’s most important contribution to science, moreso than any of his research, was his bequest of $510,000 — worth more than $9 million in today’s currency — to the United States of America. Ewing proposes a few suggestions as to why an English scientist would leave such a huge endowment to the United States government.

According to Smithson’s quirky will, his entire estate was initially left to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, who was a bachelor, and to his wife and children, in the event that he married. After Smithson laid out his instructions, he then wrote these famous lines, “In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property [ … ] to the United States of America, to found at Washingotn, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” [p. 307-308]

Curiously, as revealed in the last chapter of Ewing’s book, Smithson’s bequest ignited an international lawsuit and a decade-long congressional battle. This controversy featured a huge cast of historical figures, including John Quincy Adams and Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom struggled with how (and whether) to use Smithson’s gift. Some Americans saw Smithson’s generous gift as a form of self-aggrandizement, while others viewed it as being motivated by spite against England. However, Ewing argues that Smithson was an idealist who was fascinated by America’s meritocracy and who saw that the reality of “public science” that excited him and many of his compatriots would flourish best in America. Certainly, Smithson’s view of science was drastically different from those of the elitist gentleman-scholars that populated the Royal Society.

Needless to say, despite the fact that we don’t know precisely who Smithson was, nor why he left his fortune to the United States, he did accomplish one of his stated goals: his name will never be forgotten.

This book is just so well-written and interesting. It will appeal to many different people; especially to those who love history and history of science as well as those who enjoy reading biographies. Smithsonian fans will also like this book and I think it is certainly a must-have for libraries.

Heather Ewing is an architectural historian. She has worked for the Smithsonian and the Ringling Museum of Art. She lives in New York.


  1. #1 Kevin W. Parker
    September 18, 2007

    Actually the bust across the street from the Smithsonian Castle is of physicist Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian. (Jonathan Yardley also got it wrong in his review of the same book, and, considering he works for the Washington Post, really should have known better.)

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    September 18, 2007

    so where is Smithson’s bust?

  3. #3 Avenel
    September 18, 2007

    I can’t find a bust, but there is a seated statue by Gutzon Borglum at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

  4. #4 Library Diva
    September 18, 2007

    What an excellent review…I will put this one on my TBR list!

  5. #5 Kevin W. Parker
    September 18, 2007

    I’ve lived in the DC area since 1982, and I’m not aware of any Smithson bust anywhere locally.

  6. #6 kevin z
    September 18, 2007

    I am currently reading The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burliegh. Which is also about James Smithson, his life and John Quincy Adams hard work to get congress to authorize the museum. For some unknown reason (I guess I haven’t gotten far enough yet, but there are allusions to his admiration of the american people of his time), he gave $500,000 dollars to found the Institution. Its a good read and recommend it!

    Excellent review of this book though, I’ll have to read it next.

  7. #7 Katherine Sharpe
    September 19, 2007

    Grrl, I once worked (well, interned one summer during college) at the Smithsonian. The department I worked in was right around the corner from the behind-the-scenes ornithology wing. It was so cool! Seeing the ‘backstage’ areas of that museum is one of the experiences I cherish most. We should reminisce sometime… :)

  8. #8 hey-h
    September 20, 2007

    I grew up (and live) in the D.C. area and have been to the Smithsonian approximately 50 million times and have never seen a Smithson bust that I know of, so you shouldn’t feel bad. If there is one, I’d guess it’s in the castle.

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