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.

Ewing has documented Smithson's involvement with several scientific institutions. In 1784 he was elected to membership in the London Society for the Promotion of Natural History. In 1786 he was elected to the Chapter Coffee House Philosophical Society, where chemistry and mineralogy were often discussed and where the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan, who for a decade was the principal defender of the phlogiston theory, was the moving spirit. Jointly with Henry Cavendish, Kirwan nominated Smithson and secured his election to the Royal Society of London. In 1799 Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, invited him to become a proprietor of the new Royal Institution of Great Britain. Smithson published his first paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1791, on the chemical analysis of a compound found in bamboo. His analysis of calamines, zinc ores from different sources, showed that some of them were mainly zinc carbonate, which in 1832 was named "smithsonite." He seems to have intended that the Royal Society would be the principal beneficiary from his estate, but he had a precipitous and immoderate falling out with them, changed the designated beneficiary, and published his last paper in Philosophical Transactions in 1817, thereafter making a point of publishing all his future papers elsewhere. Many of his papers continued to be on chemical subjects.

Ewing shows how much Smithson cared about, and indeed was obsessed by, his scientific reputation in life and posthumously. His chemical and mineralogical research, which Ewing places in their context of scientific debate and of the publications that reported on them, have earned Smithson a minor but secure place in the history of science. But his astonishing and unanticipated bequest of some half a million dollars for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution has given him greater and even more enduring fame.

In England, the United States was seen as a haven for "democrats" (a very loaded term in the years following the French Revolution) and for dissenters, including the fiery chemist Joseph Priestley. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey had briefly contemplated relocating there as an experiment in social and political reform. Smithson, who emerges in Ewing's account as heir to the Enlightenment, saw great potential in the United States, which had fought for and won its independence during his adolescence. Smithson never married, and when he died in Genoa he left his estate to his nephew and to that nephew's heirs. The nephew died without issue six years after Smithson; and so, according to the terms of his will, the estate passed to the U.S. government, "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Now one of the United States' greatest treasures and repositories of knowledge, the Smithsonian Institution has been fulfilling this mission for over 150 years.

Heather Ewing has given us by far the fullest account to date of James Smithson's life, his personality, his scientific achievements, and the British and European contexts in which he lived.