The Bri­tish sci­en­tist who gave his for­tune to found Wash­ing­ton’s great mu­se­ums.

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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 yard­leyj@wash­post.com.

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