In Genoa, Italy, English scientist James Smithson dies after a long illness, leaving behind a will with a peculiar footnote.

Detail from a painting by Henri-Joseph Johns, tempera on paperboard, 1816, in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Detail from a painting by Henri-Joseph Johns, tempera on paperboard, 1816, in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

In the event that his only nephew died without any heirs, Smithson decreed that the whole of his estate would go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson’s curious bequest to a country that he had never visited aroused significant attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, publishing numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry. In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.

Blue Green Smithsonite

Blue Green Smithsonite

Six years after his death, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, indeed died without children, and on July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift.

Richard Rush

Richard Rush

President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, eight shillings, and seven pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. After the gold was melted down, it amounted to a fortune worth well over $500,000. After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history. On August 10, 1846, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President James K. Polk.

Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institution

Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums including the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture (expected opening 2016), nine research centers throughout the United States and the world and the national zoo. Besides the original Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the “Castle,” visitors to Washington, D.C., tour the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, and the National Portrait Gallery. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner and other artifacts of U.S. history. The National Air and Space Museum has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting marvels of aviation and space history such as the Wright brothers’ plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space. John Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution’s great benefactor, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building.

castle-and-nmnh-small

It is hard to believe that it all started with a Will.

 

My post a year ago today: Route 66 Decertified

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5 responses

  1. Al says:

    That is fantastic!! What an amazing present to a country, and so happy that the country decided to accept it instead of what the politicians would do now and keep it without saying anything.

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  2. Birgit says:

    I had no idea that it started this way and so many people need to thank this man. It is a wonderful place to visit and one needs a few weeks just for this place(s)

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    • I hadn’t known either. I guess the overwhelming generosity of some of the worlds very wealthy. You often hear about the greed of such people such as the railroad people of America’s past and then you hear of a man such as smithson. It’s hard to reconcile the multiple types.

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