A Gift for the Ages

Portrait of James Smithson at Oxford, by James Roberts. 1786, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Portrait of James Smithson at Oxford, by James Roberts. 1786, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Heather Ewing has given us a lively, engrossing, and beautifully written account of the life of James Smithson (1765-1829). In the process she has illuminated the political, scientific, and social contexts in which this chemist and unlikely benefactor and founding father of the Smithsonian Institution lived. She has done so in the face of a major obstacle: a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865 destroyed Smithson's manuscripts, his personal library and scientific instruments, and most of his mineral collection, reputed once to have been the finest in the United States. Indeed, the prologue to this book begins with a dramatic and circumstantial account of that conflagration, in which not only Smithson's papers but also Joseph Henry's great collections were lost.

There are literary and scientific precedents for writing a biography when much of the direct evidence that would inform it has turned to smoke and ashes. John Dalton's manuscripts were destroyed in 1940, when a bomb fell on the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, yet many Dalton biographies have been published since. Smithson was in his own day a less prominent figure than Dalton had been, and so Ewing has had to explore his life through records that define him in the way that Aristotle defined place—as the "limit of the surrounding body at which it is in contact with the thing surrounded."

Ewing's task has been all the more challenging because Smithson was of illegitimate birth, the natural son of Hugh Smithson Percy, the first Duke of Northumberland. His mother, Elizabeth Macie, bore him in Paris, and even if his birth had been registered there, the record of it would have been destroyed in the burning of the Paris city hall in the Commune of 1871. Illegitimacy weighed heavily on Smithson throughout his life, and he sought but failed to obtain recognition by his father. Perhaps because of his illegitimacy he was defensive and prickly, jealous of his father's reputation. Money and inheritance concerned both Smithson and his mother, and both engaged in lawsuits in chancery. The rolls of that English court are huge and dusty sheets minutely penned, making Charles Dickens's account of the court in Bleak House only too credible. But they yield important evidence, and Ewing has diligently secured it. She has also tracked Smithson through passports, correspondence (Smithson was a disconcertingly erratic correspondent), the papers of learned societies, county record offices, and a host of other sources.

Ewing begins with a family history in a chapter titled "Descended from Kings." She traces Smithson through his years as a student at Oxford, where he became an accomplished mineralogist. Then comes a portrait of his London years and the rage for chemistry and the story of his grand tour of Europe, imprisonment abroad during the Napoleonic wars, and return to London. Further chapters relate Smithson's involvement in the new French chemistry; his relocation to Paris; his extraordinary will; and the Smithsonian bequest, which led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, a country he never visited.

Smithson's career spanned the Chemical Revolution spearheaded by Lavoisier, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror during which Lavoisier was guillotined, and the Napoleonic Wars, in which Smithson was twice held as a prisoner of war. He was a scientific traveler in Britain and Europe; he went to live in Paris following the Bourbon restoration in 1815 and he had an impressively wide scientific network, which Ewing has largely reconstructed. His scientific reputation was principally as a mineralogist, and he was an experimental chemist of some note. Mineralogy involved collection and analysis, principally using the blowpipe, a remarkably sensitive instrument in skilled hands like Smithson's. Ewing has not merely read the documentary record but has also learned to use the blowpipe as part of her research; this is typical of her thoroughness and lends immediacy to her zestful narrative.