The British scientist who gave his fortune to found Washington’s great museums.
O n the rim of the National Mall, across the street from the wonderful pile of red sandstone called the Smithsonian Castle, stands a bust that appears to go unnoticed by virtually all of the thousands who pass by it every day. In a city of statues, many others are unnoticed or neglected, in some cases with ample reason, yet this one is of a man without whom the Smithsonian Institution — perhaps, indeed, the National Mall itself — would not exist. No doubt our indifference to this man is explained in part by our indifference to history itself, in part by the paucity of firm documentary evidence about his life, but whatever the explanation, it is an injustice.
Heather Ewing’s superb book should go a long way toward changing that. The Lost World of James Smithson makes a valiant and convincing attempt to solve the mystery that its title implies: Who, exactly, was this British scientist who, at the end of his life in 1829, bequeathed to the United States — a country he had never seen — the bulk of his fortune “ to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”? The museum underwritten by his funds is now the largest in the world and one of the best, perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in a city that has many, yet we know so little about him that until now no authoritative biography has been written, and the Smithsonian itself can come up with only a three- paragraph sketch of him on its immense Web site.
In great measure this is because Smithson’s “ papers and personal effects” were all destroyed in a fire that swept through the Castle in January 1865, a decade after its construction. These included “ some two hundred unpublished manuscripts,” Smithson’s correspondence, his “ extensive mineral collection,” the “ tools of his life’s work” and “ his personal belongings, the trappings of his life as an aspiring aristocrat.” As Ewing says, “ With these losses Smithson, along with the story of his life, seemed to have utterly vanished.”
If he has now been brought back to life in this book, it is because Ewing has had the ingenuity and perseverance to seek out his story not merely in such papers of Smithson’s that survive but in the stories of others. In “ the libraries and archives of Europe, Britain, and the United States,” in “ the papers and diaries of others,” in his bank records and other sources, Ewing — an architectural historian who has worked at the Smithsonian and now lives in New York — has assembled enough evidence so that “ the protean blur of Smithson” gives way to “ a man of infectious exuberance and ambition,” a person with a fascinating ( if still essentially mysterious) private life and a scientist of genuine standing and consequence at a time when chemistry, to which he devoted much of his life, was just coming into its own.
We don’t know the precise date of Smithson’s birth, though it seems to have taken place in 1765 in Paris. His mother was Elizabeth Macie, “ an intoxicatingly fiery woman — twice married, twice widowed, twice a single mother, and mistress to a duke.” This last was James Smithson, the first duke of Northumberland, “ one of the most powerful and charismatic figures of Georgian England.” Whether father and son ever met is not known, nor is whether the duke gave any financial support to James, but the combination of noble blood and illegitimacy obsessed Smithson his entire life. For his first 35 years he was known as James Macie, but after the duke’s death he successfully sued to take his father’s name, partial compensation for the “ lifelong sense of disenfranchisement” that his illegitimacy bestowed on him.
There was in any case plenty of money to permit the boy to be raised “ in the tradition of the Whig aristocracy, with a great love for all things French, a penchant for travel, and a belief in progress. . . . To the polish of a gentleman Smithson married the rigor and questioning of a scientist” and “ remained hungrily acquisitive of knowledge all his life, gathering information and observations into myriad notebooks and journals.” At Oxford and thereafter he explored the burgeoning universe of science with inexhaustible curiosity and excitement, and he was “ steeped” as well in the Enlightenment, “ equating freedom of movement with liberty and light, and the privations of war and oppression with darkness and ignorance.”
Ewing is by her own ready admission no more than an amateur at science, but she does a remarkable job of placing Smithson in his context, a time when science was slowly emerging from “ an understanding of matter based on the ancient Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water,” and was seen, by those who practiced it, as “ the means of overthrowing the system as it existed, of replacing a corrupt order based on superstition and inherited privilege with one that rewarded talent and merit.” These men saw “ in America’s unprecedented system of government, founded upon the rights of man, where each person was to be valued for his contribution rather than his pedigree . . . the future — the most promising foundation for the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of society.” It was a vision that led, ultimately, to Smithson’s extraordinary bequest.
Smithson was not one of the great scientists of his age, but he had a passionate commitment to scientific inquiry, and “ he was not interested in pursuing knowledge solely in the tradition of the gentleman amateur.” From youth he “ was already seriously committed to a life in science, and he was, above all, ambitious.” He was also ambitious to be recognized as the son of the duke of Northumberland and as a proper gentleman. Ewing conclusively argues that this tension between science and society was the dominant theme of his entire life. He was greatly pleased to be elected to the Royal Society Club — at the age of 22! — not merely because it was the acme of Britain’s scientific community but because it had great social standing as well, and was just as pleased to be invited later to become a proprietor of the new Royal Institution, which soon acquired similar cachet.
Precisely why Smithson decided to will most of his fortune to the United States may never be known, but he was deeply sympathetic to the young country and seems to have wanted to “ lift [ its] spirit and life.” The bequest depended on whether his nephew married and had children, to whom the money would ultimately go, but his nephew died unmarried and without heirs in 1835, six years after Smithson’s death. The money went to America, though not without a protracted legal wrangle. Another controversy arose in Washington, where Congress argued for years over whether it was proper to accept a bequest from an alien, but in 1838 the sum of $ 508,318.46 was turned over to the United States, many millions in today’s dollars. To this day Smithson’s name lives on, albeit it with “ ian” attached, in ways the duke of Northumberland almost certainly would not comprehend and probably would envy.
Now, with the Smithsonian in troubled and controversial times, it is especially useful to have Ewing’s fine biography. It is conclusive evidence that the institution arose from deeply serious and scholarly roots, and it should inspire the institution’s trustees to make certain that this tradition is carried on into the future.
Jonathan Yardley’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.