Who was James Smithson?

April 7th, 2022 by

The Man Who Founded the Smithsonian Institute

The Smithsonian Institutes are a DMV icon. Yet how the Institute came about is not largely known. British scholar of mineralogy and chemistry, James Smithson was the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institute. While a successful scholar Smithson was not welcome in British aristocratic society because his father Duke Hugh Smithson had never married his mother Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie. After graduating from Oxford, James made a good name for himself within the science community. He excelled in his field so much so the Royal Society of London accepted his membership after only one year after his graduation.

Just three years before his passing, Smithson wrote a draft of his Last Will and Testament in London in 1826. His will specified that his estate and fortune would go to his nephew. His will also stated that if his nephew passed away without any children 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 had never once been to the United States of America. It is believed by some that his goal was to create his own legacy and ensure interest in the sciences. His nephew did in fact pass away without an heir and the money found its way to Washington DC. His donation has grown into the Smithsonian Institute we know today.

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